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Alternatively, universities could become leaner. Fueled by the bubble, they’ve piled on staff (mostly non-teaching administrators, who now outnumber faculty in many institutions), constructed buildings and palatial athletic facilities, and paid almost no attention to costs. A few science and engineering courses may have inherently high equipment costs, but there’s no reason why it should cost more in constant dollars to get a degree in English literature today than it did 50 years ago. Schools that get costs under control will have a huge advantage. Those that don’t, will suffer.
Today’s university is a knowledge industry using a 19th-century model in the 21st century. If that doesn’t suggest a need for updating, what does?
The Government Yoke
American higher education offers students relatively little education at a rapidly rising cost. It produces reams of irrelevant research, operates with breathtaking inefficiency, and treats its customers arrogantly. This sorry state of affairs has worsened markedly over the last half century, propelled largely by increased government involvement.
Start with higher education outcomes. There is a growing body of evidence that the “value added” of college in terms of knowledge acquisition and enhancement of critical thinking skills is embarrassingly small. The 2011 American Civil Literacy Report, using a test that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute gave to thousands of students, showed that seniors on average know little more than freshmen. In their careful 2011 study Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska demonstrated that the writing and critical thinking of seniors are only slightly more advanced than that of freshmen.
Students do less yet are rewarded more. Several recent surveys have concluded that undergraduates study less frequently than their parents did (fewer than 30 hours a week on all academic chores, including class attendance, paper writing, etc.), but get higher grades: above a “B” average for all students, compared with a “C+” to “B-” average 50 years ago. Results are similarly dreary on the research side; Mark Bauerlein of Emory University has demonstrated that the vast majority of published work in his discipline, English, is rarely cited, even by other scholars in the same field.
This is bad, but what makes it scandalous is the rapidly growing amount of money spent to obtain these poor results. Tuition fees have skyrocketed, at both state and so-called “private” schools. When I started at Northwestern University in 1958, the tuition was $795 a year. Now it is $43,380. In inflation-adjusted terms, the sticker price has quadrupled. At the rather typical mid-quality state university where I have taught for more than 47 years, Ohio University, tuition has risen from $450 in 1965 to $10,216 today, tripling in real terms, growing far faster than incomes over that period.
This academic arms race is largely financed by taxpayers. In 1970, the federal government’s student financial assistance programs totaled a bit over $1 billion. Last year it was $173.8 billion. Ostensibly, this increased funding provides improved access by allowing those of modest incomes to attend college. But the proportion of recent college graduates coming from the bottom quartile of the income distribution has actually fallen sharply since 1970—from 12 percent to a bit over 7 percent. Former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett was right in 1987 when he hypothesized that higher federal student loans would merely lead to higher tuition fees. Colleges, not students, capture the money.
What have the schools done with the funds? Mostly, they have hired lots of staff. The enrollment-adjusted number of “non-instructional professional” personnel has roughly doubled since the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, professors have been given reduced teaching loads—the proportion of instructors who teach four hours or less per week has more than doubled since 2000.
Administrators also pay themselves handsomely. It’s not just football coaches who make million-dollar salaries these days; some university presidents do as well, with fringe benefits that can include mansions, chauffeured cars, club memberships, copious first-class or private jet travel, even payment of income taxes.
Colleges and universities, echoed and abetted by politicians like President Barack Obama and education-cheerleader groups like the $1.4 billion Lumina Foundation, promote the notion that nearly every American should have a post-secondary education and that we need to regain world leadership in the percent of young adults who have bachelor’s degrees. Yet labor market data show that a large portion of those with bachelor’s degrees have jobs that do not require a college education. (A forthcoming Center for College Affordability and Productivity study puts the portion at around 48 percent.) There are more than 115,000 janitors, for example, with bachelor’s degrees.
The feds encourage students to borrow money for college, run up huge debts, and then, increasingly, get low-paying jobs upon graduation. The default rate on student loans is above 12 percent, exorbitantly high by commercial lending standards. The more students borrow, the easier it is for colleges to raise tuition fees to pay for the comfortable lifestyles of administrators and professors.
Colleges have no skin in this game. They often use federal monies to lure students whom they know have a high probability of not graduating, then suffer no consequences when students default.