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The Money Tree

September 16, 2010

I’ll confess to being somewhat skeptical of the current batch of gripes regarding the cost of the modern university, conveniently distributed at exactly the same time as several books by the same authors on the same topic. Recently Mark C. Taylor has been attracting most of the attention, but there apparently several other mindless curmudgeons. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, both lost in the dark shadows cast by the sunset of their careers, also want in on the game.

On one hand, I agree that education has grown tremendously expensive, and perhaps unnecessarily so; but on the other hand, I’m not sure that the reasoning of these authors is correct. Here’s an article from the LA Times:

If you look at how that added revenue is being spent, it’s hard to argue that students are getting a lot of extra value for all that extra money. Why? Colleges aren’t spending their extra revenues, which we calculate to be about $40 billion a year nationally over 1980 revenues, in ways that most benefit students.

<snip, after some grousing about the expensive athletic programs of universities, with which I agree>

Another source of increased expense is administration. Since 1980, the number of administrators per student at colleges has about doubled; on most campuses their numbers now match the number of faculty. Here are some of their titles: senior specialist of assessment; director for learning communities; assistant dean of students for substance education; director of knowledge access services.

Needless to say, these officials claim that they offer needed services. Who can be opposed to ensuring access and assessment? But let’s not forget that tuition pays for all these deans and directors; having more of them means higher bills for students.

Okay, stop.

Part 1: True, university administration costs a pretty penny. Is it all money well spent? Probably not. Surely, cutting back on administrative costs would help to alleviate some cost burden. But we don’t actually get an argument about which administrators should go and why. We just get a blanket argument about the cost of administrators. That’s not a real argument; and it’s not clear that losing some administrators wouldn’t also cost in other ways. Or, put differently, it’s not clear that these administrators aren’t actually contributing substantially to the educational mission of the university. We just don’t know, and the authors don’t give us a reason to trust their reasoning.

Here’s another bold claim:

Added tuition revenue has also gone to raise faculty salaries. Yale’s full-time faculty members now average $129,400, up 64% in inflation-adjusted dollars from what they made in 1980. (Pay in other sectors of the U.S. economy rose only about 5% in this period.) Stanford’s tenured and tenure-track professors are doing even better, averaging $153,900, an 83% increase over 1980.

We’re told such stipends are needed to get top talent, but we’re not so sure. Faculty stars may raise prestige, but they are often away from the classroom, having negotiated frequent paid leaves and smaller teaching loads — underwritten, of course, by tuition. At Williams College this year, for example, three of seven religion professors are taking off all or part of the academic year.

Okay, stop.

Part 2: This is what I really wanted to address. First, whether the percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars from a 1980 salary is a fair or unfair increase can’t be established simply on the basis of the percent increase. If they were making bupkes in 1980, for instance, this clearly doesn’t entail that there is any kind of injustice in a 69% increase. As far as I’m concerned, high school teachers and firemen should get a 69% increase from what they currently earn.

Second, their sample is insane. $129,000 does seem like a helluva lot for a full-time faculty member, but it’s roughly twice as much as I make, which seems to be pretty uniform across my university.  To draw conclusions from one of the best endowed universities in the country is extremely misleading. Yale pays its professors a lot of money. That’s no surprise. It is and always has been a school for the exceptionally rich.

Moreover, to clump all faculty into one category — assistant, associate, full, with distinction, emeritus — from all ranges of discipline — economics, business, particle physics, philosophy, and English — is absolutely asinine. Surprise! It takes more to buy an econ guy than a philosophy guy. Hard to figure out why that might be.

Fourth, on a slightly different point, that faculty stars are often away from the classroom is probably a good damned thing. It’s good for the school and good for the students to have people producing research, learning from one another, and staying ahead of the game. You don’t want to strap Martha Nussbaum to the classroom so that she can’t participate in the public discourse, for instance. That would be an incredible blow to the University. You don’t want to tell Peter Singer to stop making appearances on the Daily Show so that he can get back to telling students what he thinks. That would hobble your asset.

The authors imply that the religion professors at Williams are just taking the year off, as if they’re going fly fishing, or as if they’re off to drink cocktails on the beach. Nothing could be sillier. I have no information about what those professors are up to, but I’d put my money on research… research that will eventually be published and trickle back to the students in the form of networking, prestige, experience, current knowledge, and so on. Depending on the kind of school in question, that’s what professors are paid to do. At an R1 university like the University of Colorado, it’s explicitly written into our contract that 40% of our time is to go to research. Couple this with the fact that most of us teach in our areas of research (naturally), and you’re looking at much larger chunks of our time dedicated to research, all of which essentially enriches the educational mission of the University. Fancy pants professors work closely with grad students who are kept up to date on the latest greatest stuff; grad students work with undergraduate students who get a slightly filtered picture, but still deal with budding young academics. It’s a pretty reasonable system, all told.

What should be called into question is not necessarily where the tuition money is going, but whether the authors of this absurd article understand the first thing about academia. They seem to have no or little clue what goes into a good education…at least a good education at a major research university.

…to be continued.

Caveat Emptor: I haven’t read their book. I’ve just read the populist drivel in this article. It’s intolerably boring and predictable. I’m sure the book will sell, but it’s easy to sell completely stupid ideas so long as they reinforce common ideological tropes…and this position certainly does that.


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3 comments

  1. Well put. I thought the same after reading this Times book review last week:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/19/books/19book.html?ref=bookreviews

    Still, I think there is a fair point on the issue of using adjuncts for most of the teaching. Last I checked, at CU-Boulder about 3/4 aren’t tenure track and at least half are part-timers. That seems like a raw deal for students as then most of the money they are spending is going to administration.

    They should focus on the increased admin costs for sure, which I suspect are often unjustified. For example, there is way too much admissions money going into marketing these days IMHO.

    Julian


  2. Of course when I say 3/4 and “half” above I mean the percentage of courses taught by such folks, not the number of such folks.


  3. Another consideration is the drastically increased number of standing professors who, in the late 70’s and through the 80’s, began their teaching careers as associate and assistant professors. As a result of their historically high influx into academia at that time, and the fact that a great number of them are retiring much later and are tenured and paid a proportionally higher salary, the overall compensation statistics are skewed compared to 1980.

    To get a true reading of the average salary increases, you’d need to track the assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors separately so that the increased percentage of full professors doesn’t cause this statistical skew.

    Great article.



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