President Obama has spent a lot of air time talking about ideas — or trying to generate some — for dealing with the skyrocketing costs of attending college, as well as with the shortcomings in the existing financial aid system. Making college affordable is a lofty goal, indeed.
In their attempts to increase the affordability of higher education, however, the federal government — along with its state counterparts — have actually contributed to the escalating costs of school. The policymakers’ good intentions have proven to be counterproductive because they don’t have a grasp on the complicated array of forces that drive costs.
According to a Lancaster Online article, it is easy to assume that college professors are getting fat and rich off of tuition dollars. In fact, it is popular in some conservative circles to disparage academics, claiming they work too few hours and make far too much money. The Obama administration seems to be of similar mindset. When asked about college costs at a town-hall meeting in Pennsylvania last year, Vice President Joe Biden responded, “Salaries for college professors have escalated significantly.”
In fact, faculty salaries are not escalating. According to a 2012 salary study by the American Association of University Professors, faculty salaries have been relatively stable, when adjusted for inflation. For example, tuition has increased in public colleges 72 percent since 2002, while professors’ salaries increased by less than 1 percent. Similar trends are observed at private colleges.
Recent reports from the Delta Cost Project suggest two culprits: administrative growth and increased student services. Colleges, on average, are growing their administrative ranks and spending more on noninstructional services.
These increases are possibly due to state and federal grants: When students have more money to spend, colleges can charge more. Not surprisingly, 18-year-olds aren’t particularly savvy spenders. Rather than weigh the educational quality and value offered by competing universities, students often place considerable emphasis on dorm rooms, athletic facilities, recreational opportunities and the like. The result is what some refer to as the “country-clubification” of higher education.” Students opt for colleges with rock-climbing walls and sushi bars. They demand counselors, tutors, and recreational amenities. The price is passed on, in part, to taxpayers.
For colleges and universities, it is a classic collective action dilemma, based on the need to satisfy consumer demands. The Delta Cost Project reports that colleges are becoming increasingly tuition dependent, and attracting students is a competitive enterprise. If a competitor builds a new field house or private student apartments, the college it is competing against must do the same. In fact, it is usually best to be out in front on the newest luxury or innovation. The result is an arms race of spending among America’s colleges and universities.
In fact, high tuition may itself be a selling point for some students. It seems that people associate a higher price tag with quality and prestige. In “The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education,” my co-authors and I find evidence of a relationship between college cost and student satisfaction. Within each type of institution (private/public, large/small), students who attend more expensive schools think they are getting a better education that those who attend less expensive schools. Perhaps they are. The net effect of this is that students tend to gravitate toward the most expensive college they can afford to attend.
Policymakers have also elected to address the rising costs of college by requiring institutions of higher education to demonstrate that students are getting their money’s worth. The result has been a movement towards institutional “assessment.” The mandate comes from the Department of Education, which requires that accrediting agencies demand evidence of student learning. Colleges and universities have little option but to comply; without accreditation they cannot receive federal funding or admit students with federal financial aid.
However, the irony is that these efforts to hold colleges accountable are actually contributing to rising tuition prices. Accreditation isn’t merely about student learning. Rather, it’s about documenting student learning. And that documentation requires man hours. Most institutions fail to adequately measure the costs associated with these mandates. While larger institutions hire assessment officers and create bureaucratic structures, others simply pass the work to faculty committees. But even here, if faculty members receive release time to do assessments, additional faculty need to be hired to teach courses.
College costs are largely consumer- driven. The solution may be to simply reduce the money available to students. Unfortunately, universities often find that instructional costs are the easiest to cut. Indeed, many institutions are increasingly relying on low-paid adjuncts. In the face of financial strain, my husband has seen the full-time faculty members in his department at Penn State Harrisburg cut in half. So, although faculty salaries have not driven the rising tuition costs, instruction is often the first casualty in the face of budget cuts.
In order to refocus institutions of higher education on actual instruction, we need to redefine quality. Organizations that rank institutions of higher education should add measures of financial responsibility to their formulas, rewarding those who spend the highest percentage of revenue on actual instruction. Likewise, if the federal government wants to improve college affordability, the emphasis must be on incentives for reducing administrative growth and student services. If the ultra-rich want to attend universities that resemble yacht clubs, so be it. But they shouldn’t be there on taxpayer dollars.