Tuesday, November 08, 2011


“Whatever colleges and universities choose to spend their money on is called a ‘cost.’ If they hire more administrators, or build more buildings to house them, or send the college president on more junkets, these are all additional costs.”
-Thomas Sowell, Inside Higher Education

Princeton University
Colleges and Universities are giving poorer and poorer educations and costing more and more as years go on. With the current unemployment situation, college age kids and recent graduates are pretty unlikely to find a job in their field, let alone any job. From 1982 to today, college tuition and fees have increased 439% from while median family income rose 147%. The whole system is falling apart, and Glenn Reynolds for years has been warning of an "education bubble" where the cost and money involved exceeds the product value, and it appears we've passed that point.

So how can this be fixed? Volokh Conspiracy has run a series of articles about the student loan program and how to address that end, but I think that's the wrong approach. I understand their perspective, as the writers are professors and hence work at universities, but the fact is, that's where change has got to take place first.

For starters, universities and colleges need to step back and reassess what the purpose of their institution is to begin with. An institution of higher learning is not a high-stakes jobs program. The purpose of a college education isn't to get a sweet job, and it isn't some sort of entry system to upper crust society. The purpose of these institutions is to educate and enlighten. They are supposed to be preparing young people for leadership, for greater understanding of the world around them, and to be better citizens and members of their society.

The fact that some degrees necessarily lead to jobs such as business or medical degrees does not negate this basic purpose. The education is meant to prepare young people for the world, and they can narrow or specify that to focus on a particular area of interest to prepare the more directly for a given path. That's why a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts are so broad. You can get a BS in some special field, but the degree covers a very broad area. And you get a PhD in a specific area, but the doctorate is a graduate level. There's no Doctor's degree, its a PhD in medicine. There's no business degree, its a Bachelor of Science in business.

With this perspective, the idea of colleges as job mills has to be abandoned, so people don't go to college to get a better job but to be a better person. From that you'll likely get a better job, but it will also make you a better voter, a better parent, a better neighbor, and so on. This shift in perspective would change the priorities and focus of colleges and universities.

Next, based on that understanding, these higher education institutions have got to take a good hard look at what programs and services they're offering. They need to pare back the junk and keep what's important for a good education. It might be prestigious to offer obscure and odd degrees such as UFOlogy, Parapsychology, Tourism and Leisure Studies, and Contemporary Circus and Physical Performance, but its a waste of resources.

Any degree that's so specific about some obscure, meaningless area needs to die, because each degree takes of money, resources, time, space, and teaching that would be better served in other areas. So ULCA, get rid of your degree in surfing. Georgetown, dump that Star Trek degree.

The lack of resources and money spent on these degrees would allow colleges to charge less for each year of education. That means some professors get the axe, and some buildings don't get built - or get repurposed - but that's not a problem. They never should have been used for this in the first place.

The other place to look for cuts is administration, and in fact this is probably the biggest area of cost in recent years. A US Department of Education study showed that from 1993-2007, the fastest rising cost for a college or university was administration:

In that time period, student enrollment went up by 14.5%, but full time administrators rose by over 39%. And the cost went up as well. Spending per student on education went up by 39% but spending per student on administration went up by 61%

That kind of bloat means a massive increase in costs. And it isn't surprising. Administrators tend to be paid higher than other workers at a college or university, and every time you add some asinine degree to the college like Medieval Queer Women's Asian Studies, you have to have a staff and administrator for that degree.

And when you bundle in student services, development professionals, counselors, political correctness officers, and all the other hangers-on added to colleges after the 1960s, the increase in costs isn't hard to trace. Does a college really need all these people?

However, according to the Goldwater Institute, administrative costs only account for 20% of tuition - a hefty chunk, but still a minority. And it isn't hard to tell where the other costs come from when you visit a college.

One of the largest costs for colleges and universities is the faculty. There are even more of them than administration, and they all get pretty good pay. Six figures isn't unusual for a tenured professor at a major university, and that's good money in anyone's book for 9 months of work a year consisting of a few hours a day repeating a class you figured out five years ago. Sure, I'm being facetious, but not entirely so. The average pay for a college instructor, lecturer, or professor is $75,000 a year according to Dick Morris.com, and that doesn't include benefits.

Its worth paying someone good if they're good at their job but in the modern market, universities and colleges need to look closely at how much they're paying out and if its worth the cost. Look at their student load, could they take on more? Look at their expenses, do they really need that trip to Greece at your expense? Look at their supplies, do they really need a new computer every 2 years?

And look over your tenured people. Is that system really working? The purpose of tenure was to protect education and ensure that unpopular or unusual ideas were protected from retaliation, but given the tendency toward ideological homogeny in faculty, that's not an issue. You often can't get hired, let alone tenure, if you really vary from the mindset of a department. And tenure doesn't tend to protect different ideas so much as fossilize the faculty and protect them from any need to produce or even work.

Just because someone is prestigious and has great selling books doesn't make them an asset to the university or a good teacher. The point of professors is to teach and if they cannot do that well it doesn't matter who they are, how long they've been there, or what they bring to the college in terms of status. Its time to start cutting back, starting at the frivolous and excess edges such as "x Studies" departments and those absurd degrees. Heads must roll to cut costs.

And ultimately, any discussion of cost has to deal with quality of product. Nobody minds paying a high price for an excellent product, but if you charge eleven dollars for an Egg McMuffin you won't sell any. That means the quality of education received has to match the cost paid for that education, and that's the other side of the equation that's slipping.

First and foremost, colleges and universities have to open their minds a bit in terms of political ideology. Its nearly impossible for an openly conservative person to get work at most of these institutions. Hiring is controlled by the department heads, and they'll look for people who tend to agree with them. Its not so much deliberate bigotry as the presumption that anyone who disagrees with them must be a cretin, an idiot, a worthless knuckle-dragging, sister-marrying redneck who clearly isn't professor material.

That mindset has to be broken and the barriers to ideological diversity shattered in the process. No institution of higher learning can be honest about its educational opportunities if it only provides one viewpoint of the world: leftist, and in many cases, the leftiest possible. That failure to educate more broadly means students leave unprepared for much of life, indoctrinated into a specific sort of understanding of life, and poorly fitted to be leaders and work in varied communities.

Further, the focus of education this results in tends to be more "producing good leftist drones" than critical thinking liberally educated citizens. If you're taught how to think rather than how to decide for yourself, then you haven't been properly educated. If the focus of the college is on political correctness and shaping young minds toward a specific political end, then education has ceased to be the point. Small wonder people are graduating without the ability to think critically and understand the world, they're being shaped into carefully molded political zealots instead of prepared to face the world with a proper background and ability to think and analyze for themselves.

But at least they learned all that in a really pretty setting, right?

I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Like all colleges, its basically a park. Everything is beautiful, well tended, and carefully designed for aesthetic value. The buildings were made of attractive brick, the fittings inside were fine and often quite old, the lawns were manicured, there were forests and rolling hills and in all the place was wonderful looking.

And all that costs a lot of money. Here's how Penelope Wang at CNN describes the problem, using Wesleyan University's 360 acre wooded campus as an example:
complete with state-of-the-art film center, 7,500-square-foot fitness facility, skating rink, 11-building arts complex and a new $47 million student center offering everything from Mongolian grill entrées to organically grown coffee.
if colleges were spending most of their money on initiatives that improve the quality of education for students, you might regard price hikes running at two to four times the rate of inflation as a necessary evil. But spending on palatial dorms, state-of-the-art fitness centers and a panoply of gourmet dining options? Maybe not.
I'm not saying that colleges should look like Tom Hank's workplace in Joe vs the Volcano but having that lavish, lush park-like setting is a pretty huge cash sink. And there's hardly a year that goes by without improvements, new buildings, and new equipment being built into every college in the US, let alone the world. All that costs quite a bit of money. 50-75% of the average college budget goes to costs other than faculty and classrooms.

That has to be cut back. Maybe you don't have to have the absolute most beautiful setting in the world. Maybe you don't need Rembrandt paintings and Calder sculptures in the lobby. Maybe you don't need etched glass and golden filigree. Maybe you can get by without leather chairs in the library. Maybe you should focus less on seeming opulent and wealthy and more on education and reducing costs.

That doesn't mean the place has to look shoddy, but lets be honest, the reason Community Colleges are lower end educational options is quality of teachers, not the quality of the campus. You can learn just as well in an ordinary looking building as you can some grand palace. A Community College can give a pretty good education for a hundredth the cost of a university largely because they don't need to look like a mansion set in a park.

The problem is, these institutions are already built like that and usually on very expensive land in cities where space and land is a premium. So they are locked in and cannot easily change.

So perhaps what's needed most is a new start for these institutions. Instead of following the pattern of, say, Cambridge in England, you should walk a new path. Its time to start from scratch with a new concept for higher education, taking advantage of modern technology and cutting out what is irrelevant to education.

First off, the location of a college or university needs to be somewhere cheap. The fact that these institutions are almost entirely self sufficient (Oregon State University even has its own nuclear reactor!) means that they do not need to be located in sweet downtown locations. In reality, most colleges and universities weren't originally in the middle of town, but their cities grew around them. The starting point needs to be somewhere close enough to town that faculty and workers don't have to commute excessively, but far enough out that the land is cheaper.

Second, the facilities need to be cut back. You don't need to look like a palace, you need to look more like a cheap office building or older high school. Build them so they aren't hideous, but do so as cost efficiently as possible. Cut everything back to the point you are as cheap as you can get without damaging education (beds and dorm rooms can't be unlivable, for example). If you have donors giving you specific things (Calvin College's observatory for example), that's fine; its not a cost to the students. But build cost effectively. And even if you're donated something, build it in a way that is cheap to maintain.

Sports facilities are fine, but keep them cheap until they start making you money - and if they don't then keep them cheap. Physical fitness and sports are a valid part of college education, but they shouldn't be an expensive part.

And make sure you offer only classes on campus which must be on campus. Many classes can be taught over the internet using video technology for live lectures. People scoff at this approach, but it is significantly cheaper and delivers the same education that a classroom can for many subjects. Email, phone, and video conferencing even allows students to talk to their professor when they need to. Modern technology means you don't have to have a cavernous lecture center with state of the art computer projectors and lighting with sweet, stadium style seating.

Having the profs work harder for less is an important step as well. Taking on more students, working more hours, and being paid a more modest amount (with fewer benefits) would reduce costs considerably as well. Every professor or would-be lecturer will say right up front they're all about the students and education. Put them to the test, work them harder for less, for the students, for education. Focus on the quality of education for lowest cost possible, not the prestige of highly paid profs at vastly expensive institutions.

And finally, abandon tenure. The ease of modern publicity will deal with improper firing and discipline, negating the need for tenure. If a professor isn't or can't deliver, then its time for a new one who will. If one gets too expensive, find a good replacement who works cheaper. To run a modern university, the administration has to be cutthroat - and that means about themselves as well.

President of a university right now is a status job, considered a highly important and significant position. They live in mansions, they are paid extremely well, with very fine benefits. They hobnob with the movers and shakers of society. And all their job is, is to oversee the university to make sure its run well and educations are properly delivered for a proper cost.

That's worth good pay, but not the kind of prestige it is now given. Administration at an educational institution should be seen as the guys behind the scene who get the work done, not some kind of academic celebrity. The staff should be the minimum needed to do the job, without the detritus that has built up over the decades.

And behind it all has to be the driving, overpowering desire to deliver the finest education for the greatest purpose with a philosophy of preparing people for the world and to be great leaders. With that as the foundation and permanent mindset, delivered in the most cost-effective manner possible, using modern technology to its fullest, we can get back to what colleges and universities were always supposed to be about, at a reasonable cost. Its never going to be cheap, but it won't demolish the first ten to twenty years of your earnings just to complete.

Look, I like the way colleges look. I think they're beautiful. I wish they could go on forever like they are now, and I feel proud when I see Willamette University fixing up an old dorm or building a new structure. I wish it was possible to maintain the system the way it is now, but the costs have gone insane. The system as it now stands cannot continue the way it has.

It will change. That's not in question. The only question is whether it will be on purpose, by design, or in spite of our efforts, in catastrophe.

1 comment:

George Cran said...

This is true. Not all graduates of college get the job they really studied for. It's just how God planned it out for you ,if ever. But never hold back and keep aiming for your dream career as much as you can. That is why I read about smart tuition reviews, and I gotta use the money wisely.