Barrack Obama spent a portion of August touring areas of New York and elsewhere championing, among other things, the need for colleges to keep tuition and costs down. He also set forth a policy and a proposal for rating colleges on their efforts to keep education “affordable.” Quite a few people have jumped on this bandwagon, including even a columnist or two, and one on the staff of The Economist, and more than a few of them are citing the need to keep the salaries of teachers and professors in line. Yes, college costs are going up, but the President and others don’t seem to understand the causes… or don’t want to address the real problems.
To begin with, the term “costs” doesn’t really refer to the total cost of educating a student, but the costs incurred by the student. In the past, a significant fraction of the total cost, and in some cases at state institutions almost all of it, was paid through funding from state legislatures or other sources, such as endowments at private institutions. Over the past thirty years, the share of state funding for higher education has dropped by half or more, while the percentage of high school graduates entering colleges has essentially doubled. To make up the shortfall, tuition and fees have increased far faster than have the actual total costs, a fact that gets overlooked.
With some few exceptions, largely in “for profit” education and some elite non-profit colleges and universities, the bulk of increasing costs haven’t come about because salaries of teachers and professors have increased markedly. For the most part, except for a handful of “celebrity” professors and teachers at each institution, those individuals actually doing the teaching haven’t been getting significant raises in years. Many haven’t gotten raises at all, and more and more teaching at the college level is being handled by grossly underpaid part-time adjuncts, who seldom if ever get benefits, and struggle along on wages more in line with the fast-food industry in hopes of getting the experience that will eventually land them a full-time position.
The second greatest single reason for increasing costs at state colleges and universities – and those are the institutions that the vast majority of students attend – is that non-educational costs have skyrocketed. It’s not the salaries of the teachers and professors that budget-cutters should be going after, but the numbers of executive level administrators and their compensation. This is also happening on the secondary school level, where high-paid executives are cutting out programs and canning teachers at the same time that their salaries are increasing. On the collegiate level, athletic programs expand year after year, and university after university tries to climb higher on the athletic totem pole, with higher–paid coaches, more facilities and assistants, while replacing retiring professors with inexperienced part-timers. Universities also build lavish student centers and other such facilities to lure students because in most states legislative funding is based on enrollment increases.
The third reason for increasing costs is that more than half of all incoming college students require remedial courses because they aren’t prepared for college level work, and this is despite a considerable dumbing-down of the collegiate academic requirements. More remedial work requires more teachers and for students to spend longer in college.
Despite these various obvious and real causes, the President and others are focusing on rising tuition and threatening to punish institutions that increase tuition without focusing in the slightest on the underlying problems creating the need for such increases. State legislators demand that state colleges and universities admit more students, but they continue to cut state financial support, and then politicians at all levels, including the President of the United States, castigate those same state universities for increasing tuition. This is nothing new. It’s been going on for well over a decade… and no one in either the state or national political levels is willing to address the fundamental problem. More students, and more with learning difficulties or poor preparation, require more resources at a time when all too many of those resources are going to non-academic aspects of education and when states are cutting their support of higher education.
Same song, umpteenth verse; should get better, but it just gets worse.