Opinion

A new theory of rising college costs

Tuition would be lower if our society were stronger

Over the past several decades, the cost of higher education has increased dramatically, more than doubling since 1985 at both public and private universities. The search for an explanation is urgent.

While no complex phenomenon has a single cause, one overlooked factor here is the parallel societies we've come to expect colleges and universities to create. These institutions now offer a suite of duplicative services that are either more properly the domain of the state or are activities once entrusted to students and faculty themselves. Driven by what Ryan Boyd calls "a growing technocratic-neoliberal emphasis on data, measurement, and surveillance," college is ever more expensive because we expect ever more of it.

The services I have in mind aren't the things people most strongly associate with college — classes and the professors who teach them. Indeed, the percentage of courses taught by full-time, tenure-track faculty members has been on the decline for decades, with many classes taught by graduate students, non-tenure track full-timers on short contracts, or part-time faculty working for poverty wages with no benefits or job security. That shift saves schools money, but tuition hasn't fallen accordingly. The rising cost of higher education still consistently outstrips inflation.

Conservatives blame the explosion of loans, which create a kind of moral hazard known as the Bennett Hypothesis. As former Secretary of Education William Bennett argued, "The more you subsidize something, the more you get of it." In other words, colleges responded to expansions in federal aid by raising tuition and spending it on new programs, real estate, and services.

That theory certainly has supporters who aren't lifelong conservative activists like Bennett, but it fails to account for rising costs at state colleges and universities, which are less reliant on loans in the first place. There, liberals blame the retreat of state support for public education, which was once effectively free for in-state students. In some states, like Pennsylvania and Alabama, funding has fallen by more than 30 percent just since 2008. The Bennett Hypothesis also doesn't really explain why so many schools are mired in seemingly endless financial crises despite ostensibly grifting off the federal government's limitless largesse.

Another popular explanation for spiking college costs is administrators, who are often regarded like colonists constantly seeking to expand their domain. The story goes like this: Administrators hire other administrators, who must find ways to justify their existence. They deputize even more administrators in a self-reinforcing process commonly called "administrative bloat."

This pervasive trend was capably satirized by the now-defunct University Title Generator, which would spit out made-up but entirely plausible titles like "deputy vice provost for strategic stakeholder management," and by the reliably hilarious Associate Deans account on Twitter. While department chairs are forced to beg, borrow, and steal for every full-time faculty position, administrators are brought on board with little concern about long-term cost.

Over time, those administrators arrogated to themselves areas of responsibility that once belonged to faculty — hiring processes, curriculum development, advising and student services, and more. In his 2011 jeremiad against the academic administrative state, The Fall of the Faculty, political scientist Benjamin Ginsburg wrote that they have become "instruments of administrative imperialism and academic destruction." Deans and provosts and presidents, once promoted from faculty ranks and expected to return there after a tour of duty, are now selected through national searches administered by pricey headhunting firms that charge six figures and up to fill a single position.

This is an appealingly straightforward story, but it is, I think, unfair to the people doing this work. More importantly, it has the causality almost entirely wrong. The truth is more complicated, relies less on a Manichean account of administrators themselves, and points instead to administrative growth as reactive to consumer demand and regulatory requirements. The parallel society on campus exists because parents and regulators increasingly expect it, and fulfilling that expectation is an expensive proposition.

Some of this expectation is driven by a change in how we regard 18 to 22-year-olds. If you're Generation X or older and lived on campus, you probably remember college as a place where you instantly became a freewheeling adult with little to no supervision beyond dorm RAs, who were often in cahoots with your alcohol- and guest-smuggling.

That's no longer how things work, and maybe with good reason: Recent research into neurological development suggests it would be a mistake to think that some kind of adulthood switch flips when you turn 18. Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt argues 18-year-olds are about halfway through a brain development and maturation process that begins with puberty. Even compared to people in their mid-20s, these very young adults are more susceptible to peer pressure, likelier to plunge into risky situations, and have more trouble with planning, organizing, and impulse control — all of which are crucially important for succeeding in college and staying out of trouble. Parents know this and don't want to send their vulnerable children to anarchic Animal Houses where no one will bother keeping tabs on them.

The recognition that college-age students should not necessarily be expected to easily navigate their new worlds has driven a necessary but expensive expansion in student support and services. At elite institutions like Harvard, which can afford to do whatever they want, this might be overkill. But at less well-known institutions like my own, where students often work full time outside the classroom, support family members at home, and may not arrive on the first day equipped with all the tools they will need to do well, these services are essential. They're also unsustainably costly, so up tuition goes.

Now, just as elementary and high schools are expected to fix social problems whose causes are far upstream from education, colleges have had to occupy territory abandoned by the retreating state. That territory often comes with additional demands from regulators and well-intentioned Department of Education edicts, again resulting in higher costs for students and their families. Most colleges today operate their own systems of justice to comply with federal regulations like Title IX, and HR departments have grown apace with changes in federal regulations about hiring practices. Meanwhile, U.S. student loans are enormously complicated and costly to operate, requiring investment in even more staff, software, and office space.

Miniature armies of staff members are hired to advise students about which classes to take, another task that used to be the exclusive domain of faculty members. (When I was an undergraduate in the late 1990s, we mostly picked our own classes haphazardly before occasionally checking in with a faculty advisor.) And as the college-age population has declined, the competition over each student has heated up, necessitating exorbitant investments in recruiting, admissions, marketing, and financial aid services. This is valuable work, but the net effect is undeniable: The administrator to student ratio keeps going up, and so does tuition.

These trends are responsive to social and regulatory pressures, as I've said. But those pressures in turn stem from the failure of federal and state governments to provide the kind of robust social safety net that would eliminate the need for universities to employ their own mental health professionals, social workers, and security forces in the first place. Yes, especially at more remote schools, there is a convenience factor to having some of these services on campus. But, in a deeper sense, colleges have become parallel societies because the broader society into which they should be integrated is not what it ought to be.

Tuition hikes, student loans, and endowments make it possible for schools to offer these services on a small scale, a costly stopgap which excludes most of the community and puts higher education — the bedrock of liberal democratic society — ever further out of reach. Bickering about why college is so expensive and finger-pointing at administrators won't do anything to address that underlying societal deficit.

Perhaps the way to reduce tuition is to strengthen society writ large. 

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