Why Does Higher Education Cost So Much?

Today’s Washington Post has a great editorial about the costs of higher education. As you read it–and I hope you will–think about this: the number one item in any college or university budget is payroll. Higher ed is a labor-intensive effort, and trimming the operational budget will never reduce the rate of increase in tuition.

Any effort to reduce costs must recognize this, just as it must recognize that the costs of staff, as opposed to faculty, are driven by government “mandates” (e.g., somebody must make sure the campus is ADA-compliant, somebody’s got to make sure the crime stats are made public), by faculty shrugging off some of their responsibilities (somebody must advise all those freshmen, somebody’s got to provide tutorial assistance), and by the simple rule of consumer demand (somebody must maintain the landing strip for all of those helicopter parents, somebody’s got to keep the website up-to-date). So before proposing getting rid of staff to save money, think about what they do and more importantly why they do it before wielding the ax.

And as you examine faculty salaries think about this: once granted tenure, faculty have jobs for life. Most institutions do not have “post-tenure reviews” to evaluate performance, although the promotions’ ritual (assistant to associate to professor) provides the institution a chance to make, or not, appropriate adjustments in salary. Most institutions are loathe to raise the issue of an ineffective tenured faculty member, let alone tackle it. An administration so inclined does so at its peril, because the individual faculty members that collectively make up the faculty beast will rise as one and start squawking about “academic freedom,” abusing that term to cover everything from out-and-out oral abuse of students to out-and-out dereliction of duty. The self-interest of the group simply prohibits its members from being conscientious reviewers of their peers. It’s also true that academic administrators are engaged in a perpetual game of musical chairs: dean one moment, garden-variety faculty member the next; chair today, gone tomorrow. Under this very typical scenario, there is absolutely no incentive to make a tough or unpopular decision. Quite the contrary. It makes no sense to rile the troops, when you know you’ll be turning in your stripes in a year or two.

But you know what? There is no cure, let alone an easy fix. As long as students and their parents appreciate the real-world value of a liberal arts degree from an elite institution, there is no incentive for the college or university to change its practices. As long as an undergraduate degree that represents a skill (other than the highly debatable vaporware of “critical thinking”) learned or a technical expertise acquired from any other kind of institution guarantees a shot a good job and a better life, then the student has gotten his money’s worth.

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