Sorry, No Useful Ideas Here

      8 Comments on Sorry, No Useful Ideas Here

Your Humble Blogger feels it in him to do some actual blogging, that is, off-the-cuff response to provocation. The provocation is the notorious WP op-ed column Do college professors work hard enough? by David Levy, to which Mr. Round strenuously objects. It’s a work of crap.

The problem, of course, is a serious one: the cost of attending a college without tuition remission or a non-loan grant of some kind has grown, relative to median income, to the point where our national dream of (nearly) any kid having an opportunity to graduate college with a chance at a good life in a respected profession is laughable. It may have always been laughable—certainly, it was always laughable in the aggregate—but its risibility is now difficult to ignore. We want, I think, to keep that as a national dream. I have no idea how we pay for it.

As Dean Dad points out, part of the way we pay for it is by subsidizing it at the levels we used to—part of what’s going on is that tuition has gone up as a percentage of revenue in a lot of institutions, including private ones. Part of it is that health care costs have gone up a lot, as is true everywhere, and that’s a problem we have to deal with everywhere, not just at colleges. Part of it is probably administration creep, despite Dean Dad’s denial.

I’m wondering, though, and I have no idea—I know that community colleges and other commuter colleges have also suffered tuition hikes, and that therefore the competition-by-student-villages of a couple of decades ago isn’t pushing their costs. But at the institution that employs me, it sure seems as if the costs of maintaining the campus have been increasing hugely. The new buildings need tremendous care, the aging buildings need tremendous care, the energy costs have presumably skyrocketed (think of all the classrooms to heat along with the dorms, and I’m guessing that people are less tolerant of hot or cold rooms than they were thirty years ago), the maintenance on all the food courts (that probably haven’t paid for themselves the way they were supposed to) and other amenities, etc, etc. And there’s some multipliers in there—the health care costs go up for the maintenance workers, too. And then there’s IT; I wonder how much per-student the IT budget has gone up in the last thirty years. For at least some of the new student villages, IT is an essential part of maintenance. The laundry in the dorms at the institution that employs me, for instance, is networked to a central database that counts the money they are spending by swiping an ID. The locks on the dorm doors are card-swipe as well, although I think the room doors still have metal keys.

The thing is—YHB doesn’t have an answer to any of this. I mean, yes, returning state support to twentieth-century levels. Start with that. But the rest of it? Dunno. I know David Levy’s plan won’t work. I suspect it wasn’t meant to. But it would be good to find something that does work.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

8 thoughts on “Sorry, No Useful Ideas Here

  1. irilyth

    Yeah, I dunno. This is a problem in general with universal-coverage single-payer stuff: If you say “this is so good and important that we’ll buy it for everyone, whatever it costs”, then the people who sell it don’t have a lot of incentive to keep costs down. And it’s hard for the people signing the checks to tell whether “oh, it has been a hard year, a very hard year, our costs are very high” actually means “our costs are very high”, or “we are taking you suckers for a ride”.

    Saying “you can’t have this nice thing unless you’re rich, because otherwise the price would get even higher” is a pretty stupid sounding argument. But my impression is that the way that expensive things drop in price, and become affordable to people who aren’t rich, is by vigorous competition among sellers, not by massive government spending.

  2. irilyth

    Oh, also, I only skimmed the article, but David Levy’s plan seems totally wrong to me, in that my impression is that faculty salaries are not a very large portion of higher education budgets, and that reducing them by some smallish fraction isn’t going to have any significant effect at all.

    Huh, but I’m apparently wrong about that in at least one case: is the 2011-2012 operating budget for Swarthmore College, and says that “Compensation” is 62% of their expenditures. That presumably includes people who aren’t faculty, but still, it’s more than I’d thought; I was expecting that maintenance and construction were the big ones. Well, unless that includes compensation for people who do maintenance and construction, who knows.

  3. Vardibidian


    I was going to say that the recent increase in tuition has coincided with a decrease in government subsidy, so that it’s hard for me to see a causal relationship between the subsidy and the inflation. On the other hand, it’s probably (I should do the research) more accurate to say that the government subsidy has been transferred from direct aid (particularly the per-student amount at public universities and community colleges) to federal backing of student loans. And while we disagree about the empirical evidence concerning competition and government subsidy, I do think that the practice of subsidizing/guaranteeing loans has encouraged profit-taking among lenders. It doesn’t necessarily do that, and I could imagine an oversight scheme that might balance it, but I think the evidence over the last thirty years or so has been that it has done. And I can imagine theory backing it up, that says that when people are borrowing to pay, and the lenders see no risk, that prices are very elastic indeed.


  4. irilyth

    > the government subsidy has been transferred from direct aid (particularly the per-student amount at public universities and community colleges) to federal backing of student loans

    That’s my impression anyway.

    My impression is also that students don’t generally think much about the size of student loans when considering whether to take them out — they’re just a cost of going to college, and it’s just sort of assumed that it’s what you do and then you pay them off and it all works out. This is really different than, say, when people think about getting a home loan or an auto loan, when people think very hard about whether they can afford the payments, and make tough decisions based on that. The student loan market doesn’t seem to have that; perhaps because you don’t sit down and compare the payments to your income, because of course (a) you don’t have to start making payments until years later; (b) your income is bupkes when you commit to the loan, and you only have a vague idea of what your income will be when the time comes to make payments.

  5. Chris Cobb

    Interesting discussion!

    Just a small note on faculty salaries: at a liberal arts college, salaries are going to be a big chunk of the operating budget, because the college isn’t, you know, running a teaching hospital or a quasi-professional athletic program or a major agricultural research station, etc. Most major building projects, which count for a sizeable chunk of the college’s expenses, will not be included in the operating budget, however. Buildings and grounds regular maintenance would be, as would the heating bills, but the big-ticket physical plant items I think would not be. Those things are usually paid for, at private institutions, anyway, by capital campaigns that are also separate from the operating budget. Figuring out exactly what makes college expensive is not easy.

    A less small note on faculty salaries: one of the arguments (which I am not able to either criticize or defend rigorously) is that education, unlike manufacturing and other forms of physical production, cannot be made significantly more efficient with the application of technology. Therefore, as actual things get cheaper because they cost less to produce, education becomes more expensive relative to other commodities.
    Education can thus be made less expensive only by reducing its quality, either by lower teachers’ salaries, which lowers the quality of teaching, or by increasing the student/teacher ratio, i.e. class size, which lowers the amount of direct instruction each student receives. It is possible, of course, to lower costs without reducing salaries or increasing class size by increasing the proportion of the faculty member’s time that is devoted to teaching activities, to a point, but then you lose the benefits of faculty research and faculty service. Those magnitude of those benefits is, of course, quite arguable in many cases, but any academic institution must weigh the role that those benefits play in maintaining the quality of the faculty, the reputation of the institution, and the social utility of the institution when making decisions about faculty load.

    It’s easy to see why it has been easier for institutions to continue to let education get more expensive than undertake the difficult and indeed painful work of figuring out in what ways the quality of the institution could be appropriately lowered in order to make it more affordable. No academic institution is likely to do such work voluntarily, and an institution that does so in isolation, rather than as a part of a very broad trend, is likely to make itself less competitive. Austerity makes nobody happy.

    Putting ascetics who have taken vows of poverty in charge of higher education makes very good sense, from an economic point of view.

  6. JeffH

    A big factor which I think has an impact on pretty much every point that’s been brought up is that there is an enormous difference between private, highly selective schools such as Swarthmore, and public, open enrollment/low selectivity schools such as the one I’m working at. Even five years into the job, I’m still surprised at some of the differences I find.

    As for some specific points: irilyth, the figure you found almost certainly includes compensation for everyone, not just faculty. In particular, the growth rate of administrative positions most places is through the roof and those positions tend to be among the highest paid at a school.

    Also, from what I’ve seen, there are plenty of students who do worry quite a bit about the cost of student loans going into college. I’ve had students who have dropped out of school because they felt they weren’t going to be able to afford the loans in the long run.

    Chris, there actually is one other way in which education at some schools can be made cheaper, namely making sure the students actually follow a path that leads to graduation. This is one of the areas where the difference between the Swats of the world and the open enrollment schools is vast. At the private schools things are usually set up in such a way that it’s actually pretty hard not to graduate in four years if you take a full load of classes every semester and pass everything. Core requirements tend to be relatively flexible, there’s a well established structure making sure you set out a plan that gets you finished, and the schools are pretty good about adjusting if need be.

    In contrast a lot of the large public schools are terrible at giving students the guidance they need to get out in four years, the requirements are such that it’s very easy to wind up taking courses that don’t count towards graduation and so on. Changing that could reduce the overall cost of college quite a bit for some people.

  7. Chris Cobb

    Jeff, thanks for bringing up those differences. The situation at my previous institution, which was NC State, was pretty similar to what you describe, and speeding progress to degree would indeed be very helpful. It’s a challenge to bring about reform in this area as in so many others, of course, partly because the very factors that make public universities less expensive than private ones make them less able to give students the guidance that they need:

    • Administrative support per student is much less
    • Student/faculty ratio is higher
    • Faculty are less invested in advising in many cases b/c the big public universities place heavy research demands on the faculty
    • Incommensurate requirements in different schools within the institution cause students to lose ground if they have to change programs
    • Overall size of the institution makes course selection more complicated
    • Individual students are much less empowered b/c schools depend much less on the financial contribution of individual students, families, and alumni (having students with a strong sense of entitlement can be problematic in some ways, but it does contribute to an institutional culture that places a priority on helping the students accomplish their goals, including timely completion of their degrees).

    I think that the problem of guidance is quite a bit more tractable than some of the other issues that make it difficult to lower the cost of education, but it still often entails the structural, curricular, and cultural reform of large institutions, and that isn’t easy to accomplish.

  8. Vardibidian

    JeffH–I think the graduation thing is an excellent point; the graduation rates really are astonishing (see Why Do So Many Americans Drop Out of College?). Although there’s a sense in which the students who do get degrees benefit economically from the ones who drop out, I suppose… Anyway, I do want to add to your comment that those of us who went to (or work at) small, selective liberal arts colleges and those who went to (or work at) large, open enrollment public institutions tend to forget about the third category of large private universities that are not very selective, if not actually legally compelled to take everyone with a GED. There are a lot of them around, including my employer, and while a lot of them are semi-religious or ultra-religious, those count, too, as options for people to get that lottery ticket to a living wage.

    Also, to continue the conversation about loans–I don’t know that prospective students are any more or less thoughtful about debt levels than home-buyers or car-buyers. They might be, as (a) they are younger, on the whole, and (2) they are being told a lot of stuff about their future income that is, um, aspirational. Although the latter is perhaps also true of home-buyers, now that I think about it. Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that it’s the lender, not the borrower, who is responsible for the whole is-this-person-going-to-be-able-to-pay-back-the-loan question, and the way that the student loan stuff is set up, the borrower had a lot of incentive not to do that in a responsible manner. Which, you know, was also true of mortgages, and look how that worked out.



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