Recently two competing ideas about college tuition were making the rounds. Fareed Zakaria, focusing on incarceration rates, noted that:
In 2011, California spent $9.6 billion on prisons, versus $5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus; it's built 21 prisons. The state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.Also, Rush Limbaugh went on a typical rant about student loan debt and tuition rates. I'm pretty sure Limbaugh is being sarcastic when he says birth control is one reason for student loan debt. Because, see, Sandra Fluke and others cited the cost of birth control as a reason it's important for it to be covered as free preventive care, so it's hilarious, in Rush-land, to act as if the cost of birth control accounts for debt on the much larger cost of college.
But Rush is definitely serious that liberals should be blamed for student loan debt, and the problem is, too much of his basic account is taken seriously. Not the birth control part, but his real explanation. It appears that his argument is that student loan debt is growing because, first, 1965. The federal student loan program was started in 1965, and what else originated in 1965? Medicare, Medicaid, and other "rotgut." Second, Rush says that President Obama "directly controls" student loans. I'm guessing he's talking here about the fact that the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act cut out the middleman on federal student loans, taking subsidies away from lenders and increasing the amount of funding available to students. Which, quelle horreur.
But the final word on student loan debt, per Rush, is that:
Tuition's increasing far faster than the rate of inflation. Yeah, and who's in charge of this? Liberals. Lifting student debt higher? Isn't the rising cost of tuition like the whole problem, other than the birth control pills? Yet there's never any criticism from Obama or the Democrats or the news media about colleges and how greedy they are.So the problem—the whole explanation for more than $1 trillion in student loan debt—is that liberals are in charge and colleges are greedy. Not that Rush Limbaugh deserves to be seriously fact-checked, but college tuition costs and the student loan debt that results are important topics, and Rush's explanation is basically just a crude distillation of Republican policy. What is going on here, then?
Well, some colleges are greedy. That would be a solid slice of your for-profit colleges, which aggressively recruit students, charge higher tuitions than public colleges, have high drop-out rates, and produce nearly half of all federal student loan defaults despite only enrolling around 10 percent of students. But to Rush, that's likely the sacrosanct private market.
What about public colleges and universities? It's true, tuition has gone up—rising 8.3 percent at four-year schools, on average, in 2011. That's because tuition plugs the gap when state appropriations fall short of covering the costs of educating students, and in 2010, per-student public higher education funding fell to a 25-year low (PDF). Then it fell again in 2011. Since the 1980s, at the same time as a college degree was becoming more essential to making your way into the middle class, the cost of college was falling more on students, with tuition steadily increasing as a share of revenue for public colleges and universities.
Between 2006 and 2011, 43 states decreased per-student funding, and in 17 the drop was greater than 20 percent. During that five-year period, even with increasing tuitions, total per-student revenue dropped in 26 states. So the biggest part of the public higher education tuition story is that more people are going to college and state funding is not keeping pace.
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That's something even President Obama occasionally pretends he doesn't know; in this year's State of the Union address he said:
Of course, it’s not enough for [the federal government] to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. [...] So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.This is why you can't ignore Rush Limbaugh. Obama knows better, and on a press call not long after the State of the Union his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, did emphasize the role of state funding in tuition increases. But the fact that the president, in his highest-profile address of the year, dispensed with state funding in a sentence and then focused on costs at colleges and universities, concluding with the flagrantly nonsensical "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down," is a good sign of how broken the national discourse is. Because the data show that it's exactly when funding from taxpayers goes down that tuition goes up. Quality education doesn't get cheaper because funding gets cut—instead, either quality declines or tuition goes up.
Oh, but what about waste? What about unreasonably high salaries? There is some of that. But it's to be found among exactly the people who would be tasked with making decisions about how to cut costs within a given college or university: administrators. For 12 straight years leading up to 2009, senior administrator pay rose by more than the rate of inflation. Their ranks grew, as well:
...from 1976 to 2005, the number of full-time college administrators (vice presidents and deans, for example), rose by 101 percent, while the number of full-time nonfaculty professionals (in student services, development, and information technology, for example) rose by 281 percent.But:
Over the same period, the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty members rose by only 17 percent.Cost savings at colleges are decided on by the rapidly growing ranks of well-paid administrators, and the costs cut tend to be among faculty, the people who actually teach students. That work is increasingly being transferred to low-paid adjunct professors. Not only is the low pay adjuncts face an issue in itself—to pay the bills, they may forced to teach more classes than is good for them or their students—but it goes along with factors that very directly affect students:
For example, adjunct faculty often have trouble connecting with students because they lack office space, and thus can’t mentor struggling students. Their fragile position as contract workers also means they are less able to be outspoken about campus reform and improvements, and less able to advocate for their students when administrative issues arise.Studies have indeed found both that high numbers of adjuncts, and especially adjuncts with poor working conditions, have adverse effects on students. To be clear, this is a systemic problem, not a problem with the individual teachers. But the issue, when we're talking about higher education funding and tuition, is that this is exactly the cost-cutting measure that administrators tend to turn to—they're sure as hell not cutting their own jobs.
The miserable wages and working conditions faced by adjunct professors, and the fact that there are so many adjuncts because good college teaching jobs haven't kept pace with the number of students needing to be taught, aren't the only ways rising college tuitions and student loan debt are a part of the broader war on workers. Putting people into the catch-22 of a college degree being a virtual necessity for a middle-class life but one that requires students who don't start off middle class to accumulate large debts helps keep people trapped, struggling not to fall further behind rather than figuring out how to change the system. If we make higher education—the kind middle-class kids have gotten all along, not something with the same name but lacking big parts of the actual education—available to anyone who wants it, without a lifetime of debt, suddenly the economic prospects of the coming generations start looking really different. The fact that instead, investment in college students is going down? That's not an accident.