Eleven Theses on the Rising Cost of Higher Education

school in ruins

This post was inspired by this Chronicle article on a recent study regarding the drivers behind the rising cost of higher education, and is clearly a snapshot of where my thinking happens to be now.

The quotation that most caught my attention, and the many who shared this article, identifies three often overlooked drivers of this rising cost:

You can’t blame faculty salaries for the rise in tuition. Faculty salaries were “essentially flat” from 2000 to 2012, the report says. And “we didn’t see the savings that we would have expected from the shift to part-time faculty,” said Donna M. Desrochers, an author of the report.

The rise in tuition was probably driven more by the cost of benefits, the addition of nonfaculty positions, and, of course, declines in state support.

1. Education is expensive because it is necessarily labor intensive.

Experiments in distance learning is one example of an effort to make education less expensive, in many ways replicating with education what technology has enabled in a wide variety of other activities.  That such experiments have thus far proven disappointing suggests there is something intrinsic to education that cannot be readily mechanized.  It might even be possible that advances in the use of technology in education will only occur when accompanied by even more expenditures of labor.

2. The expense goes up if those in positions of power engage in rent-seeking behavior.

Joseph Stiglitz in The Price of Inequality provides an excellent description of what economists mean by “rent-seeking.”  Basically, it means someone takes out more wealth from a system then he or she puts into it.  Stiglitz goes even a little further than this, to say that rent-seekers increase their share of wealth while doing nothing to add to the wealth that exists.  See my post here for further discussion.  The heightened attention that many top university administrators and coaches have received suggests growing concern that some form of rent-seeking is occurring in higher education.

3. The expense also goes up when the state and accrediting agencies make lots of demands, but many of these demands have merit and so can’t be easily dismissed.

I was really struck in the comments section of the Chronicle article by the impressively clear descriptions of the regulatory hoops schools are asked to jump through.  Sitting on the Provost Advisory Council of my school, I know first hand that many of these regulations are not simply frivolous.  The requirement that schools keep track of sexual assaults on campus, for instance, feels to me a pretty good one, but doing so takes labor and the labor is not cheap.

4.  Infrastructure investments can drive up the cost of higher education, but are also just as much a response to the need for greater revenue.

The former president of the University of Miami of Ohio, James Garland, gave an unusually candid interview in which he claimed the school saved itself, at a time of declining state support, by attracting more out-of-state students who would pay more in tuition by upgrading the physical plan of the school.  He said, “we took advantage of low interest rates for municipal bonds and invested in rehabilitating our residence halls and eating facilities and putting in more recreation — workout rooms and lounges, and the kinds of accouterments that really dressed up a campus and made it a much more comfortable and familiar place for upper-middle class students.”  While this strategy worked for many early adopters, it has now become a necessity for other schools to do likewise in order to stay competitive with the kind of students who can pay high tuitions.  They need such students because of weakening financial support from the state.

5.  The cost of benefits are going up because they involve other labor intensive industries all of us critically rely upon, and there’s not much a school can do to affect this cost other than depriving some of its employees of benefits.

Nowhere is this more true than the cost of medical insurance, which in the state of Massachusetts has climbed precipitously.  Like education, there’s a robust debate about why this cost keeps going up.  There are certainly factors driving this cost up higher than it needs to go—such as, again, rent-seeking behavior among administrators of health plans and hospitals, and heavy investment in expensive cutting-edge technology—but ultimately providing health care is a labor intensive activity.

6. Currently, the burden of education’s expense is being shifted to students and contingent faculty.

Is there any question that tuition costs are going through the roof, or that the use of part-time, adjunct faculty is at an all time high?  Many of the latter would have been full-time tenure-track appointments if schools weren’t feeling pressure to save money where they can.

7. As a result of this shift, students are being punished for wanting to be educated and teaching is becoming increasingly de-professionalized.

The effect of rising tuition costs is that students are being forced to borrow more, even as the government keeps making the terms for student loans less and less attractive.  Filing bankruptcy, for instance, no longer protects former students from lenders of student loans.  At the same time, the erosion of full-time tenure-track professorships and their replacement by contingent faculty weakens the power of teachers to affect policy on campus, makes it more difficult for teachers to engage in important public debates (which tenure in particular is suppose to facilitate), and most importantly of all impoverishes teachers who have spent years training to take on an important social role.  Because students are taking on more of the burden of paying for their education, they are increasingly also viewing themselves as consumers and teachers as service providers, further eroding the latter’s professional status.

8. We should want to do the opposite because paying teachers good wages with benefits and allowing students to attend as much school as they want and are qualified to, rather than what they can afford, serve a common good.

The common good can be defined as anything that benefits more than one individual while not belonging to anyone in particular.  We can think of parks, for instance, as a common good since they are owned by a public trust of some kind, and are available for use by anyone who can physically access them.  They may charge a fee to be used, but in general we appreciate it when the fee is low or free because their upkeep is being publicly subsidized.  We used to think the same way about schools, including colleges and universities, but we don’t anymore, even while it should be self-evident that schools serve an even more important common good than parks.

9. The common good is not served by thinking of education as a business capable of making profit.

The minute we start thinking of a park as a money-making venture, its very status as a public good is in danger.  The cost of admission goes up because we expect revenue from those who visit the park to sustain upkeep and to create a surplus, which can then either be plowed back into the park to make it more profitable or be taken right off the top as profit by whoever has endowed themselves with this right.

10. The common good is served, however, when public support, especially in the form of tax dollars collected in a progressive manner, takes up more of the expense of education.

Here we are led back to my first thesis: education is expensive because it is necessarily labor intensive.  If true, this means we have to find a way to pay for it.  It can’t pay for itself.  It certainly can’t be made to pay a profit.  So if we think it is against our own collective self-interest to make students and faculty pay for the cost of education, we have little choice but to ask the public who will most benefit in the long term from an educated population to pay as much for that education as possible.  In return, the public will also be in a better position to demand the cost of education not be inflated by behavior and investments that do not add to a school’s mission.

11. The common good can only be rescued from its diminishment if we believe it can be sustained.

The “tragedy of the commons” was an argument proposed by Garrett Hardin, who believed nothing held in common could last because someone would eventually come along and expropriate its use for individual gain.  It is a tragedy because it is somehow unavoidable.  But this begs the questions, how did the commons come to exist in the first place?  Why didn’t someone else come along before that obnoxious greedy individual arrived on the scene to expropriate its use for individual gain?  Who is this individual shorn of custom or inhibition or social relatedness or a sense of civic responsibility?*

*This line of reasoning is explored at greater length by Rob Nixon in this PMLA article.

© 2014 Min Hyoung Song