Those who have closely studied soaring tuition rates at public universities know that administrators' ballooning salaries are the real culprit, not the cost of instruction. While faculty employment levels have generally remained flat in recent years, universities have continued to hire more and more administrators. Purdue University, for example, has grown the campus bureaucracy by 75 percent in the last 13 years.
That fact comes from a recent Wall Street Journal profile of former Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is now the president of Purdue. Since taking the job last year, Daniels has been fighting the good fight against bureaucratic bloat. His results are probably as good or better than any other tuition-conscious university president, though the structural barriers are massive:
Mr. Daniels cut millions from state higher education as governor, but millions more pay for the administrative salaries that have ballooned at Purdue, along with most universities around the country. At Purdue, there are now 75% more administrators and staff on the payroll than there were 13 years ago.
J. Paul Robinson, a former president of the faculty senate, said Mr. Daniels's worth as a leader will be tied to his ability to prune that administrative bloat. "Let me put it this way," Mr. Robinson said: "A blind man on a galloping horse at midnight with sunglasses on can see the problem. The question is, What can he do about it?"
Mr. Daniels says he is consolidating administrative jobs where prudent and leaving jobs unfilled where the duplication of effort makes that possible. He has jettisoned 10 university cars, consolidated hundreds of thousands of feet of off-campus rental storage and introduced a higher-deductible health-care plan.
He has also frozen tuition rates:
And by freezing tuition, he is forcing his own school to modernize its 19th-century business model with a combination of systemic cuts, organizational realignments and cash incentives.
"This place was not built to be efficient," Mr. Daniels said when asked about the structural changes he was making at Purdue. But "you're not going to find many places where you just take a cleaver and hack off a big piece of fat. Just like a cow, it's marbled through the whole enterprise."
The bottom line is this: Universities can't have it both ways. They can't provide an affordable education to middle class and low-income families while also hiring a bajillion more residential advisors, vice presidents of sustainability, diversity coordinators, and other paper pushers who never set foot near a classroom.
Many Democratic politicians who claim to sympathize with the suffering students, such as President Obama and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, believe the best way keep college affordable is to loan students a bunch of money on the taxpayer's dime and then forgive their debts —so long as they find their way into government service. But that doesn't actually keep costs down; it merely tricks students into thinking they can manage.
The best method for preventing tuition increases is actually much simpler: University presidents and regents need to stop raising tuition to cover non-educational nonsense. Kudos to Daniels for understanding that, daunting though the challenge may be.