The net effect of the "high cost of higher ed" argument

This is the first of the 2010-2011 academic year’s series, Excellence Without Money(a term coined by the b!tchez at Roxie’s World in their series on the high cost of not funding higher education.)  For the full archives at both blogs, click away on those links, darlings.

I’ve been doing a little thinking about the effects of the arguments we’re seeing everywhere about the high cost of higher education.  Complaints about the cost of college, and the rate at which it’s increased in the past two decades, are always a major part of the argument in the slew of books published recently urging major reform of American universities.  Strangely enough, none of these books suggest that the federal and state governments should once again subsidize higher education at the rate it did during the Cold War, nor do they advocate ripping out computer labs and IT departments, which are the two biggest reasons college costs more than it used to.  (From 1986-90, my “laptop computer” was a $2.99 multi-subject notebook that I bought at the beginning of each semester.  If you started college before the mid-1990s, I’m betting that that was your “laptop,” too.) 

Instead, their arguments boil down once again to attacks on the faculty–especially tenured radicals who absurdly expect to be paid a living wage for their years of education, work, and expertise.  Oddly, all of these books have chosen to ignore how universities have slashed the costs of faculty labor by turning tenure-track and tenured jobs into positions held by adjuncts, who are paid as little as $3,000 per course and are at-will employees.  Distressingly, because of some recent resignations and regular faculty on leave, my department is this year an adjunct-majority department.  (But because it’s been years since regular faculty produced more student credit hours than our adjuncts, so perhaps this is less of a milestone than I suggested in the previous sentence.  For several years, it’s my understaning that two popular lecturers in my department produced fully half of the entire department’s FTEs.)

The problem with these articles–aside from their one-sided arguments that somehow faculty are the big piggies at the trough, not the NFL and NBA farm clubs (a.k.a. the “football teams” and the “men’s basketball teams”), not CEO-level multimillion-dollar salaries for university presidents and football and basketball coaches, and not the luxury condominiums that now pass for stadiums and dormatories–is that they’re written by upper-middle class journalists and writers who all attended and sent–or aspire to send–their children to the top 5 or 10 percent of the most selective, and usually private, colleges and universities.  Now, if the only universities you’d consider sending your children to cost $30,000-$55,000 a year, your world is very different from the world the vast majority of Americans inhabit.  But these are the people who are driving this “debate” in the op-ed pages of the New York Times and your local newspaper.

Take look at Baa Ram U.’s fee schedule for the 2010-11 school year, where tuition and fees are still less than $7,000 a year.  At an average courseload of 10 3-credit classes per year, that’s less than $700 a class.  How strange that the low cost of higher education in universities like mine doesn’t drive the debate!  How odd that the fact that faculty haven’t had a raise since 2008 (although our parking permits and health insurance haven’t taken the same deflationary holiday, natch), and haven’t been able to hire since 2007-08, isn’t a part of the conversation!  Tuition here is extremely low–artificially and shockingly low even compared to our “peer institutions” like Michigan State or Arizona State.  But even there, you can get the same number of undergraduate credits for $11,204 and $8,132, respectively.

$7,000 a year seems to me to be an extremely reasonable price for an education that, if undertaken with at least a modest level of seriousness of purpose, will probably be a ticket to the middle class.  Of course–these numbers don’t include the cost of living (either on- or off-campus), but presumably individuals would have that to pay regardless of their enrollment status.  But if the only message people hear is how ridiculous the price of college is these days, by people who have been and are eager to write $30,000-$55,000 checks for their children, no matter how painful it is and no matter how much they b!tch about it, it’s not going to hurt or change the cost of doing business for those top 5 to 10 percent of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.  Instead, otherwise sensible and responsible Americans become convinced that they’re being taxed too much, and in states like mine, they refuse to pay the real cost for what it takes to maintain decent state universities.

All I can conclude is that the people writing these “high cost of higher ed” articles is that they 1) never looked at a state university themselves, nor did they ever consider sending their children to one, and 2) in spite of attending the nation’s top schools, they managed to avoid any courses in economics, where they might have learned about the concepts of supply and demand, or a seller’s market.  Some universities have very expensive tuition, room and board charges, yes–because they can.  There are enough upper middle-class and wealthy parents who are desperate to have these institutions cash their checks.  And the bonus is that they get to brag to people about how ridiculously expensive it is to send their children to college, some of them in the pages of America’s top newspapers.

0 thoughts on “The net effect of the "high cost of higher ed" argument

  1. This whole conversation about college education costing too much makes my head hurt. As you point out, there is never any discussion of the actual reasons why education is more expensive than it used to be. One of the biggest factors stressing the public high ed system (at least in previous decades) has been competition from the private sector, which put pressure on public schools to raise salaries – at the top institutions -, build fancy dorms, and just generally add “amenities” to attract students that didn’t have anything to do with education. Of course technology is a real issue, and feeds into what I’ve just mentioned – now schools are being pressured to build or refit classrooms into technologically savvy rooms in order to make the university “modern” to attract parental dollars. As the private sector goes, so goes the public school. I think what many public universities are able to do with so little public funding is amazing.

    But the kicker is that those pushing these hysterical doomsday articles about higher ed often push a political agenda of reducing state funding still further. Many would love to dismantle the public higher ed system entirely, the way a sector of Republicans have worked for decades to try to destroy the public grade school system. Even those who *don’t* wish to see public school eliminated are basically doing the work of those who do with their ill-informed attacks on ridiculous things like faculty salaries. To all those complainers out there: Do you think higher ed would be cheaper if it were ALL private? Since that’s clearly not the case, I always roll back around to my secret suspicion that the conservative elite want to drive all public schools out of business because they hate publicly-funded enterprises, and with that move they would succeed in the cherry-on-top of creating a permanent underclass since in this system most people wouldn’t afford to go to college. Nevermind the many studies that have linked high college graduation rates with states’ individual economic success.


  2. You mean you can’t even replace retirements? We’re actually angling for two hires this year. If we can’t at least replace the retirement all of us will bloody murder in unison.

    Nevertheless, I think I know one of those lecturers pulling down something like a quarter of your FTE and both she and your description of your tuition make me want to send my daughter up towards you when she leaves the nest in two years time. It’s even cheaper in state, right?


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  4. Thank you for this. I went to a fancy public school for undergrad, a UC for graduate school, and now teach at a flagship in another state. Here, we do see some discussion about the cost of our university system to the state, we’re one of many states that has a cap on enrollment increases. At the same time, the legislature keeps on micromanaging our universities which adds layers and layers of administration. Don’t even get me started on IT, although many of our students definitely cannot afford laptops, and the computer labs are an invaluable resource.

    I have been so surprised that this public debate hasn’t contained any mention of state schools, despite the fact that a version of this debate rages in states across the country.

    [An example that has been driving me batty this week: I am applying for an ACLS. “Sponsored Projects” wants me to submit the application through them. But, the system is set up for administrators from your college to do all the paperwork. Not only does my college have no administrators, but no one even knows who to contact in the their office. I can’t even get access to the system without accessing layers of administration that don’t exist. *I don’t want this administration to exist in my college.* And, to top it off, it is required that we get the application to them four days before the deadline. Uh, we don’t have anyone who knows this in my college. I’m not doing it.]

    Wow, that was long. I could go on and on about the college structure of my school and how wasteful it is. And how it keeps resources (and money) from the faculty in the humanities, etc., despite the emerging studies that based on tuition revenue many humanists actually bring in more cash to the schools than scientists.

    And, my god, the IT waste. My department, very much on the “soft” side of the humanities, has its own programmer and web developer. They are in charge of our massive, complicated database, programming and maintaining it. Why? Why?


  5. Oh my, I shouldn’t have posted that thing about Sponsored Projects. It is making me so mad to think about it again.

    It is the most obvious example I have ever encountered of administrators making up new layers of obstructive bureaucracy in order to make themselves seem more useful.


  6. I work for one of the monster universities that charges almost $50,000 annual tuition. I do think it is insane, not worth the money compared to the decent state universities nearby and an outrage when one evaluate the cost with respect to middle class salaries.

    My salary has not changed in 20 years except for cost of living adjustment. Historiann is wrong about the cost of IT labs; they are much cheaper than the salary of one VP of which we have plenty. Most of the students have their own, newer than mine, laptop anyway.

    Our university’s model is not sustainable, especially since the coming years will be economically challenging. Reform, however, is not needed since universities such as mine will simply go bankrupt and disappear. (I’ll be retired by then.)

    The war against tenure is a mutation of the war on unions that is an American special. We are not the problem, the CEOs (university presidents) and the myriad of VPs are. I am not impressed by the grave tone and appearance of sincerity of the tenure abolition movement. The same cluster bombs are thrown at k-12 school teachers, the UAW and just about anyone demanding living wages and respect.

    Now a days, both political parties expect all of us to go into slavery and the rich to govern the earth. It simply the university profs’ turn in the barrel.


  7. One of the most bizarre and counterproductive conflations of this whole debate is–as you allude to–that of elite institutions charging multiple tens of thousands of dollars per year in tuition with those charging less than ten thousand dollars per year. The situations of students, faculty, and administrators in these institutions couldn’t be more different.

    In particular, there is no “crisis” at elite institutions. Hardly any adjuncts are on the faculty, enrollments are fine and dandy, and endowments are doing quite well again. Also, these institutions do a great job providing the service they sell: entry into the professional/managerial class top 1% of income that serves the plutocrat class top 0.05%.

    All this do away with tenure shit is never gonna touch the elite institutions, and is all about driving down labor costs at the non-elites.


  8. Perpetua, I liked this in your comment: Do you think higher ed would be cheaper if it were ALL private? Heh. I hadn’t thought about how the expensive privates (to at least some extent) are the tail wagging the dog on the fancy dorms and amenities, but what you say makes sense.

    Jonathan, the just-under-$7,000 is for in-state students, and doesn’t include room or board. In-state residential students pay just under $19,000 for the full package. (But you’ll get that big big faculty discount right? In Fort Collins, it’s only something like a 25% discount for family members’ tuition, which is ridiculous. Still, I’m sure every bit will help.)

    Wini and Koshem Bos make good points about where money is spent–and I think you’re right that 6-figure salary administrative positions have bloomed everywhere in the past 20 years. When I made the point about IT, it wasn’t to say that it was more expensive than everything else on campus now, just merely to point out that it didn’t used to exist 25-30 years ago. It’s a whole new cost center that people don’t want to do without–and with good reason. But it costs money, and someone needs to pay the bill.

    People expect universities to do more and offer a great deal more than we used to with less money. Koshem Bos is correct that this is part of the war on unions (and public employees), and he’s right that we should look to what’s happened to K-12 teachers to see what’s next for us. (Tenured Radical had a post about this last year or two years ago, about how uni faculty need to make common cause with K-12 teachers.)

    They want to de-skill our jobs and turn us into “customer service reps” rather than independent experts in our fields. The funny thing–or possibly hopeful thing–is that the dismal academic job market has meant that we have faculties who are better trained and more productive and successful than ever. If only we can keep them from pecking us to death (as Wini suggests), we could put up a pretty good fight.


  9. CPP–I think you might very well be right that the move is to crush unis like mine, and the non-profit community college systems that serve as our feeder schools.

    And the facte thatte thou didst notte writte your commentte like an Elizabethane Englishmann on crackke, makkes me thinke you’re deadly serious.



    I think this was the article that most startled me about the whole “cuts to the universities” thing–the comment above about the humanities maybe being cheaper than we realize made me go search it out again. After reading it, I started to wonder whether anyone has taken these numbers and compared them to budgets from a few decades ago–as in, could it be possible that one reason why universities are having a harder time keeping afloat now is that more students are taking “expensive” majors like engineering and science? Could it be that one reason university budgets worked before was because more students were taking classes that are cheap to run, like English and History?


  11. I don’t want to make the argument here that people shouldn’t study STEM fields, and should instead study the humanities because they’re cheaper. But, here’s a related fun fact: at my uni, officially a state Aggie school funded by the Morrill act, the LibArts college earns more money through student tuition dollars, has more majors, and produces more student credit hours than any other college. But does my uni market itself as Chautaqua in the Rockies, or push its identity as a university with a strong liberal arts core? Does it reward the faculty who are doing the mission-critical work of educating all of these folks and producing all of those FTEs even in proportion with the work we’re doing?

    {sound of crickets chirping}


  12. After reading it, I started to wonder whether anyone has taken these numbers and compared them to budgets from a few decades ago–as in, could it be possible that one reason why universities are having a harder time keeping afloat now is that more students are taking “expensive” majors like engineering and science?

    No, this is highly unlikely. Science and engineering faculty actually bring in substantial revenues to the general appropriations budgets of university via grant indirect costs. The scholarly activities of STEM faculty subsidize those of their colleagues in the humanities.


  13. Not at UCLA or Baa Ram U.! (At least, not every STEM department.) Read the linked article that Canuck Down South sent. The LibArts at my uni is not subsidized. As at UCLA, it earns more money than it costs to keep around:

    Because that evidence runs up against the widespread myth that other units and departments subsidize the humanities, and up against such well-entrenched forces within the university, it is regularly ignored or even suppressed. In the 1990s, UCLA invested huge amounts of money setting up Responsibility Centered Management, an accounting system eventually used at many universities to evaluate all the real costs of different units and the revenue they actually produce. The goal was to make budgeting fair and transparent. However, according to administrators then prominently involved in the process, when the initial run of those intricate spreadsheets showed that the College of Letters and Science was the most efficient user and producer of money, and the health sciences were far less efficient, RCM was abandoned. I have no illusions that the businesspeople and University of California medical executives who evidently have President Yudof’s ear will be more receptive to that inconvenient truth today than they were then.


  14. At my uni, it’s similar to what you’ve noted, Historiann. Our liberal arts/social science college (we are one of six colleges) generates 38% of the student credit hours on campus! Of course, we don’t see our fair share of the budget as a consequence and, in fact, we subsidize expensive programs like engineering. This astonishing number of credit hours isn’t just the result of teaching large “service” courses for the GenEd programs. We genuinely have LOTS of majors in fields like Communications, Sociology/Criminolgy, History, English, etc. And we don’t have to recruit heavily to get majors–they seek us out. I find this phenomenon interesting, since so many of the “debates” about higher education would have us believe that students are only driven by vocational desires and that their only objective while at university is to be trained for a JOB. The evidence of the high numbers of majors in the humanities and social sciences where I am would suggest otherwise: turns out, some of them might (gasp!) want a university education.


  15. TriPartite Academic–I hear you. We now have 600 majors, which is pretty ridiculous for only 19 regular, full-time faculty. Aside from the fact that we get a huge bolus of majors among the first-year students, LibArts is the college that all of those former engineering, business, animal science, and natural sciences majors turn to in their sophomore or junior year in order to salvage their educations and allow them to finish an undergrad degree. So yeah: like you, we’ve got more majors than we know what to do with.


  16. Yes, some colleges are Arts & Sciences, some exclude natural sciences. But, from the same article, he makes it clear that the humanities were separated from the sciences in calculations done at his request for the article:

    “But, according to spreadsheet calculations done at my request by Reem Hanna-Harwell, assistant dean of the humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures, the humanities there generate over $59 million in student fees, while spending only $53.5 million (unlike the physical sciences, which came up several million dollars short in that category).”

    So, it’s clear that according to this article about UCLA, humanities pays its own freight and then some, whereas the physical sciences don’t.


  17. I am not sure whether they are including grant indirects that go into the general appropriations fund, but this makes it sound like they are not:

    based on the latest annual student-credit hours, fee levels, and total general-fund expenditures

    In other words, this says that the humanities departments cover their expenditures with tuition/fees, while sciences don’t. However, science research subsidizes science education (as does medical school research/clinical subsidize medical education) with a surplus, and the science department contributions of grant indirects support all kinds of university-wide activities and infrastructure that the humanities don’t.


  18. CPP. There is additional research out there that also looks at the general appropriations fund and replicates the UCLA study. Why do you assume the authors of the study, or humanists in general, don’t know about overhead? And, where grant money that comes into the University can be tracked, but is often on many different balance sheets.

    In addition to the UCLA study, I would recommend Christopher Newfield’s UNMAKING OF THE PUBLIC UNIVERSITY, Harvard UP, 2009.

    At most public institutions, at least, the humanities contributes significantly to the general university infrastructure. I understand that it goes against what you’ve been led to believe, but please read these studies more carefully.

    Newfield’s points out that an increasing number of grants that won’t allow one to include an overhead charge, for example.

    No is claiming that science isn’t more expensive, but are you really arguing that for a lecture course my students are less deserving of a projector that works, and a dedicated staff member that will come in and fix it? Or, that when a 15 million dollar computer facility is funded with a grant that a significant portion of that money eventually floats over to the College of Social Work?

    I taught 500 students 12 credit hours each while working for 2500 a month with no benefits. I had 5 graduate students making 1500 a month. 6000 credit hours, 10,000 dollars plus benefits.


  19. CPP, you’re right that Wini made some assumptions, but it seems like you’re exemplary of the gospel that humanities = lose money whereas STEM = profit!!! She’s just pointing out–as that linked article did too–that this assumption is incorrect in many institutions, and in any case bears examination.

    As I said above, I don’t want to make the argument that expensive programs or programs that don’t pay for themselves should get the ax. That’s the neoliberal vision of the university, which is absolutely antithetical to my values. But it’s interesting to note the troubling persistence with which the humanities are assumed to be parasites on the university, rather than contributors to their vitality and excellence (and even in the cases mentioned here, to the general operating budget!) Even when it’s not true, the myth lives on.

    Wini’s comment shows how those books are balanced on the backs of the most vulnerable faculty in the university: adjuncts and lecturers, who are the reason why humanities courses can be taught at bargain rates.


  20. CPP, I’m not sure what the situation is in other places, but where I am the cutback in indirect cost recovery rates means that in fact indirect costs don’t cover the indirect costs. However, the campus *sees* ICR as an income generator, because we can use those dollars in any way we want, while the state dollars are tightly controlled. So there’s a perverse logic to saying that the STEM fields bring in money.

    And Historiann, I think one of the reasons that Baa Ram U doesn’t market itself as Chatauqua in the Rockies is that people might think it was trying to be too high class for them. There are all sorts of assumptions about “liberal arts” and class that are, well, assumptions.


  21. As I said above, I don’t want to make the argument that expensive programs or programs that don’t pay for themselves should get the ax. That’s the neoliberal vision of the university, which is absolutely antithetical to my values. But it’s interesting to note the troubling persistence with which the humanities are assumed to be parasites on the university, rather than contributors to their vitality and excellence (and even in the cases mentioned here, to the general operating budget!) Even when it’s not true, the myth lives on.

    It’s antithetical to mine as well. Whether STEM indirect cost recovery subsidizes humanities is completely orthogonal as far as I’m concerned to whether this is a good thing or not. To the extent that it’s the case, I am as happy to see my indirect costs go towards ensuring vibrancy of the humanities at my university as I am to see them keep the lights on. (Of course, if the lights weren’t on, I might feel differently!)


  22. Dear all,

    Let’s note that it is not part of the natural order that humanists can apply to fewer outside grants than natural scientists. In Europe and, increasingly, in Britain, humanists are being pushed as hard as anyone else to find outside funding. That’s not so good. But the national agencies that supply it are supporting large-scale humanities projects, and proportionally on a bigger scale than our NEH can. That’s hard to imagine in these United States, for a complex and highly contingent set of reasons.


  23. At my university, humanities are a moneymaker in terms of cost per student credit hour. We don’t spend a lot on equipment or make a lot of money, so we turn a net profit for the institution.


  24. Oh yes — and we, in humanities, write external grants for equipment, including computers and projectors and man hours to maintain them, and books for the library, and there’s at least one big humanities project going on that’s externally funded (I’m sure there are more), and indirect costs are taken out of our grant monies, and that money gets spread around the university.


  25. Great points, Tony, Susan, and Z. I’m sure we’ll all be writing grants one day soon so that the library can buy that ancient technology we in the humanities know as “books.”

    Susan, I’m sure you’re right about the assumptions about liberal arts, class, and usefulness. As an Aggie school, our historic mission is in the industrial and agricultural arts and sciences, not the liberal arts. Still, it’s frustrating when I know the quality of the work that goes on here to know at the same time that we’ll never be recognized or rewarded for it as we would be if my department were somehow sandwiched into a reasonably selective liberal arts college.

    But, that’s the breaks. My job is a good one. I’ve got a 2-2 load, which they’ll have to pry out of my cold, dead fingers!


  26. Coming to this late, but wanted to say: amen! I teach at a SUNY, and our tuition is comparable to yours. It’s just been raised, though (a fairly modest amount), and guess what? Almost none of the tuition increase is actually going to SUNY: it’s going into New York State’s general fund. Apparently that’s long been true of most of our tuition dollars This disgusts me beyond words.

    And maybe this is off-topics, but a related issue that I never see discussed is how financial aid strictures hurt the working class. Since federal financial aid is dependent upon being a “full time” student, we get students who are barely covering their tuition (sometimes while living at home and/or working full or almost full-time), and who, when a life crisis occurs, literally can’t afford to drop a class or two. Usually they effectively drop those classes, by no longer coming to them, preferring to take an “F” so they can stay in school and keep their financial aid. This happens to really bright students as well as less talented ones, and it f*cks with their GPA (and their ability to get hired, go to grad/professional school) something fierce.


  27. “writing grants one day soon so that the library can buy that ancient technology we in the humanities know as ‘books.'”

    I’ve done it a couple of times, for quite a lot of money, and I did it under an equipment rubric, arguing that books were an important technology. It worked.


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