fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

thinky thoughts on universities and tuition (pt I)

A few days ago I wrote a post complaining about the OWS demand to forgive student loans since in my mind this was rewarding a bad decision, or at least offering people a do-over when they had to face the consequences of going to a pricey school rather than a public one.

I received some really good comments on that post, including two that deserved more of a reply than I could really do in a comment. So I want to talk about the two points raised. First, over at Dreamwidth [profile] dreamflower02 asked:

I find myself questioning the tuitions that schools are charging now. I believe one figure I heard is that it was gone up 900% in recent decades. Umm, that IS a little beyond mere inflation! […] You do work in academia, so perhaps you have some insight: do you know why the skyrocketing costs? Are they justified? Does any of it translate to better pay and benefits for teachers? (If so I think that would be a good thing.) Or is a lot of it going to flashy facilities to impress people?

First things first: I'm not putting myself out there as an expert. I'm a graduate student at a Jesuit school in the humanities, and as part of that I teach required core philosophy courses (human nature and philosophical ethics). I love teaching and love talking about it, so I also try to keep abreast of news in the higher ed business (it really is a business in many ways!), but I'm not a career administrator with several decades of experience under my belt. While working toward my M.A. I worked in the admissions office, mainly overseeing an outreach program sending our faculty to give talks at area high schools. I also worked on-campus jobs as a tutor, teaching assistant, and office assistant as an undergrad, and between grad and undergrad was employed by a local uni.'s accounts payable office. So while I've seen university bureaucracy from various vantage points, it's mostly been as a grunt. :-)

Still, I do like to stay informed. Dreamflower's 900% figure seemed a bit unreal to me, though there has been a huge jump. What I heard about the national average is that tuitions have risen about 400% at public schools (national average) since the mid-1970s. Is it possible that some particular state has seem a jump like that? Not out of the ball park. There may be some other comparison (say, tuition rise compared to income rise?). So I don't think Dreamflower is lying or anything, but I also doubt it's the plain rise in tuition.

Still, 400% is a lot and needs explaining. That's not just inflation, either. I see quite a few factors at work here.

First, there's the rise of what I call "deanlets" – the administrative class that has next to nothing to do with teaching. Some of them provide administrative backup for departments and liaising with parents. Much of it is devoted to the need of "accountability" (someone has to prepare those reports), both to the state and accreditation boards and auditors. There is also the middle management "creep" you'd expect in any large corporation, where the upper management wants control over more tasks and thus needs more people. There is also the service class – the professional therapists and doctors and dieticians and event planners and placement officers and security and everyone else who mans the special programs and the clubs and student services. This last group at least contributes to the student experience in more tangible ways. But there is a cost associated with this.

In many ways a university wants to be its own little town rather than part of the larger community it finds itself in. Part of this is necessary because universities are stuck where they are so if the neighborhood goes bad you may have middle-class kids not knowing how to handle themselves, resentment from the locals to the rich students who drive up housing, restaurant costs, and so on. It's also the natural result of students not being perceived as fully adult (rightly or wrongly) and needing a surrogate parent to look out for them. But all of this creates redundancies and more costs which has to be paid by someone.

Much of that's a problem of university culture – doing too much, offering too much security and creating an unsustainable situation. But there are also big parts of the problem that aren't the individual university's fault. I see three main factors. First and foremost is a drop in state revenues per student. States either have lowered tax rates in response to the economy or the existing taxes simply aren't collecting as much. There's also more and more pressure on other social services that are even more gut-wrenching to cut: food benefits to the working poor, medical clinics, homeless shelters, etc. Who's going to cut $10,000 in food stamp benefits to give to colleges? But at the same time, more and more people are going to college because they can't find work. So colleges are expected to educate more students for the same amount of funding, if they're lucky. More common are cuts in funding.

Problem #2: The failure of K-12 education. I don't know just what is causing it, but I am seeing a lot of students who can't write a paper to save their life, or read a text analytically, or use a library catalog or journal index to research a topic. Not all, of course, but a substantial number. (A substantial number of my students simply have never written a term paper before college.) From people who have been teaching longer than I have, I get the definite impression this is a downward trend. That means more remedial coursework, more writing labs and research assistants to walk them through it. And that takes money. The remedial courses are additional sections that have to be taught, and the labs are usually made available "free" meaning the cost has to be paid out of student fees.

The final problem is one of goals. Is the proper end-product of a bachelors degree that you will be prepared to take on a certain job? Or is it to be a better-educated person and have the sort of meta-skills necessary to function as a contributing adult citizen? Because companies are hiring people not for a lifelong career but for a few years, they aren't interested in training employees; they want them already trained. The thinking is that you get a university-trained person and they're more or less ready to start doing profitable work – certainly within a few weeks. But many university professors simply don't view themselves as job-preparers. (One law professor I know quipped that he worked at a law school, not a lawyer school.) And many students, parents, and administrators – though not all! – still expect the old model, too. So in many ways the university works against itself with some parts pulling the university in one direction and some in others. Of course universities should produce employable citizens and not just citizens. But one goal has to take precedence, I think, or you have a lot of tension and inefficiency. It's like if your right and left leg couldn't agree which street to walk down.

So. That's my answer of why (to paraphrase a NY political party) the tuition is too damned high. It is. But surprisingly little of that money is going into actually paying professors or adjuncts. I'd say you've got less money going there than before, actually. How to fix it? I can paint the broad strokes – cut back on bureaucracy, better K-12 education that is more tied to the skills colleges actually need rather than standardized tests, more jobs that utilize associates rather than bachelors degrees and more students nudged into that system, more funding from taxes, and better integration into the surrounding communities. How to get there in practical steps? That's beyond me.

(And yes, I know, I said there were two comments that demanded a more thorough answer than I could give in comments. I'll try to work up an answer to the second comment later; it's related, but this is really long enough even for a blog post on its own.)

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
Tags: academic, rl
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