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Mitumba had a great piece on higher education in Florida (a path to mediocrity) and it got me thinking about some of my comments to other pieces on higher education. Some readers thought I should put them together into a diary, so below the fold, you'll find my discussion of increasing costs of higher education and the escalating cost of ignorance.

There are many reasons for increased tuition costs at institutions of public higher education, but it is not true that the problem is bloated administration.

In the past 30 or so years, costs associated with technology have skyrocketed.  Remember that in the 70s and 80s, we didn't have to wire up every dorm and every classroom for the internet, set up wireless in every building and across campus, establish intense security to protect the data networks.  Every student and teacher on campus has high expectations for a variety of technology-based services.  They never used to exist on our campuses.  It costs close to $50,000 to retrofit a classroom in an existing building to have smart technology (project powerpoint, connect to the internet, show a DVD, etc.) This is NEW and it is unfunded.

In the past 30 or so years, costs associated with health insurance and health services (including counseling) for all employees and students have also skyrocketed.  This is part of the larger pattern in society so it does not require much explanation, but we must also be mindful of the fact that 30 or so years ago, some students with significant disabilities or health conditions would not go to college.  Now they do.  And as a society we are legally and ethically obligated to welcome them and provide them with the services they need to succeed.  The number of students self-reporting significant psychiatric problems has also skyrocketed in recent years, placing increased demand on additional staffing in health and counseling services.  In the past, these students wouldn't go to college at all.  I remember a time when college campuses consisted entirely of buildings that were not accessible to people in wheelchairs.  Now every new building must go through ADA compliance check and any time an older building is renovated, it must have additional renovations specifically to enhance accessibility (e.g., more ramps, doors that open automatically for people using a wheelchair, braille signage, faucets and stalls that can be used for people using a wheelchair, etc.).  This also costs money.  Is it worth it?  You bet.  Should we do it?  Of course.  It's the right choice, both legally and ethically.

In the past 30 or so years the cost of liability insurance has skyrocketed.  While many
(most?) institutions have typically established a policy of "the college does not assume the role of your parents, colleges do have legal liability and are sued - all the time.  For instance, Virginia Tech was sued by the parents of the students murdered back in 2007. Those lawsuits are still unfolding.  Was the university responsible?  Did it have liability for the events that occurred that horrible day?  I can't say - I'm no expert. But universities have had to establish significant legal offices because lawsuits otherwise threaten to close down the institutions completely.

Thirty years ago there was a much smaller demand for study abroad programming.  These programs cost money to build and maintain.  The same can be said for internship programs, experiential learning opportunities, undergraduate research programs, and cooperative learning programs.  Thirty years ago few colleges had freshman seminars; now they are widely identified as a best practice.  And they are costly to run because they must be small to be effective.

In the past 30 or so years, the demand on public institutions of higher education to provide data on many topics has increased substantially. Colleges and universities have established offices full of employees just to meet this unfunded mandate.

In the past 30 or so years the expectations of students and parents for top-of-the-line accommodations and meals have transformed the dining facilities and dormitories on many campuses, not to mention the exercise facilities (state-of-the-art gymnasia).  If colleges and universities don't compete on this level, they lose students.  And when they lose students, they lose enrollments and tuition dollars.

In the past 30 or so years the cost of books and journals has also skyrocketed, making it very expensive for libraries to maintain their collections.  30 years ago virtually no library was connected to an electronic database.  Now every college or university library subscribes to many databases. In the past, libraries collected only books and magazines.  Now the number of new media in which libraries must maintain collections has also grown.  This too costs money.

And lastly, and most importantly, state (public) support for public higher education has been plummeting in most states (North Dakota may be a notable exception), with decreases in support coming in at about 45% over the past couple of decades throughout the country.  California, Pennsylvania, Florida are typical in this regard – and the results for public higher education in those states have been devastating to the people who need public higher education.  (Compare:  private institutions are typically costing close to $60,000 per year for attendance – including tuition, room, board fees, books, while public institutions are costing less than half that figure.)  If state support declines, how do institutions manage to pay to provide the services (including instruction) that students need to complete their degree in four years as promised?

These are just some of the cost structures that have challenged higher education recently.
One of the biggest costs on any campus is the cost of personnel.  In higher education, that's largely faculty.  So of course as the states reduce their contribution to public higher education, and colleges and universities find themselves unable to make up the difference in tuition increases, they will not replace retiring tenure-track faculty.  Instead, they will hire part-time faculty.  Some of those part-time faculty are brilliant.  They include lawyers and accountants teaching courses on law and business, for example.  Translators teaching a course on translation. Having a professional in the classroom can be an outstanding educational experience.  Some of those part-time instructors are graduate students working toward their doctoral degree and they can also be great teachers, too.  But some of those part-time instructors are certainly not great.  And in many cases they are not well trained or supervised.  But this is the way that many institutions manage their budgets.

Many of the offices at public institutions of higher education are so understaffed that phone calls and e-mail messages go days before getting a response and that offices may be closed to the public one day a week to allow staff members to respond to those phone calls and e-mail messages.  Some institutions have removed telephones from the desks of their faculty because the cost of maintaining those telephone lines was too great.  At those institutions, if you want to call your professor, you can't:  send an e-mail or drop by the office in person.  It's not the end of the world, but it is an inconvenience for some students (and faculty and staff).  Staff in another building can't call that faculty member to ask a question, such as "Can the student standing here in my office enroll in your class even though your class is full?"

Some programs are shut down (one university in Indiana eliminated majors in Philosophy and Physics last year, SUNY-Albany proposed eliminating majors in all the foreign languages, etc. etc.)  The governor of Florida suggested eliminating the study of anthropology from all state-funded institutions because he personally did not see the value.

While tuition goes up across the country, many institutions have continued to honor their commitment to financial aid for students with demonstrated need.  I fill out my financial aid forms for my son in college and am grateful for the grant I get from his college.  This is a way of discounting that big sticker price for families with need.  Not all colleges do that - some do not have a need-based financial aid system.

While we complain about the cost of education, we should be mindful of the efforts of people in higher education to do more with less and we should certainly be mindful of the cost of ignorance.

Certainly there are areas where higher education can be improved and good-hearted and well-intentioned people are trying to improve higher education for our country.  

Complaining about the cost of education without stepping forward to help support education doesn't help us move forward.

Some critics of public higher education have suggested that public institutions are somehow costing the public more money because of “administrative bloat,” or in other words, the hiring of new personnel who are not actively engaged in teaching, the primary mission of an educational institution.

I concede that at some institutions there may well be administrative bloat, but at all the institutions I know the increase in administrative staff does not keep up with the administrative burdens.

For instance, the creation of an "enterprise unit" to run revenue-generating programs in the evenings and the summers to bring in money to support the core mission of classes during the day for full-time students because the state is not providing enough financial support to cover the costs of educating those students.

For instance, the addition of staff to the development office to recruit more donors to step up the plate, and similarly the addition of staff to the alumni affairs office to enhance efforts to bring more alumni around to the idea of supporting their alma mater because the state is not providing enough financial support to cover the costs of educating the enrolled students.

For instance, the addition of staff in financial aid services to help manage the increasing complexity of student loans and grants, providing counseling for students and families and helping them to monitor how they are paying for their college education.

For instance, the addition of staff in counseling services and disability services to meet the significantly increased need of students enrolling in college with psychiatric challenges or physical or emotional disabilities.  Every time a student’s parent loses his or her job (and with it, often their health insurance), you can bet that there is increased demand on counseling and disability services.

For instance, the addition of staff charged with managing the technology deployed on campus, including the security of data maintained (and the volume of data maintained grows exponentially every year), as well as the institution's website, Facebook page, youtube channel, twitter feed, etc.

The addition of personal trainers and coaches for an ever-expanding number of teams, the staff to maintain the grounds and the classrooms and the laboratories and the dormitories, all of which are expected to be competitive with other institutions’ facilities in order to recruit the students who pay the tuition that covers part of the cost of building those facilities.  Note that in many states the public has ceased to pay for construction on public university campuses: what used to be a public responsibility has shifted to the privately-held debt of the universities themselves.

The additional costs of deferred maintenance:  in the first decade or so of the reduction of state support for public institutions of higher education, many institutes deferred their required maintenance in the hopes that the funding would be restored.  It never was and those buildings now have maintenance requirements that cannot be deferred.

And then we have the addition of new instructional staff to teach disciplines that are new now, but maybe were not feasible or even imagined as a fundament part of the curriculum 30 years ago:  majors in molecular biology, sexuality studies, interactive multimedia, geographic information systems, and many more interdisciplinary programs.

All of these - and many more I can't come up with just off the top of my head - are markers of significantly increased personnel on college campuses, none of whom is sitting around, twiddling his or her thumbs, staring at the ceiling and bemoaning the lack of meaningful work.  On every college campus I've visited, everyone is really busy, and most faculty seem to work 50-60 hours per week, administrators (deans and provosts) working 60-70 hours per week.  And the salaries and benefits at public colleges are typically not competitive with market rates for employees with doctoral degrees.  So the people who do take on those jobs do so for love.  And it shows when you ask students how they feel about their faculty.  After they dismiss one or two with whom they have had unpleasant experience, they typically describe very positive feelings with enthusiastic and inspiring faculty who have transformed their lives.

I would say: it's worth it.  So do the reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that tell us
that individuals with college degrees are more likely to get and keep a job and more likely to make more money over their lifetimes (and thus pay more taxes, unless the tax structures are radically changed, but that’s another story).  Reports on our cities suggest that cities with more residents who are college educated have better economies.  And that’s not touching the question of whether or not a college education helps an individual better achieve his or her own potential, become a better person and a better citizen in our democracy, all of which are goals in liberal arts institutions.

I know I’m not the only middle-class parent in this country or at DailyKos trying to make it work for his or her kids to attend college, with annual costs of attendance looking like my entire family income for the year, leaving me with nothing to pay the mortgage, buy food, pay for gas and insurance to get to work, etc.  My parents sent me to college, and it was a financial sacrifice, but it was not a debilitating sacrifice.  I do not blame the colleges and universities for this situation and I encourage Kossacks reading this diary to join me in supporting candidates who will support public education (not just post-secondary but also K-12) as a public good.  More than two hundred years ago our country decided that we would allocate funds to support the creation of land-grant universities in what was then the northwest of our country:  Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.  The institutions created in those states became some of the best in the country.  They also became models for other states, back in the original 13 colonies, and in California and Texas and Florida.  

Our public universities were built with extraordinary sacrifices by generations that preceded us, but we can destroy them in a decade if we continue to de-fund them.  A campaign attacking public education does not serve our national needs.    

We must restore and enhance funding to public education – at all levels – to make it possible for the next generation of Americans meet the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.  And that means not only jobs, and cures for diseases, and technological innovation, but the full inclusion of all Americans from all ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds.  We cannot afford to exclude anyone from opportunity because we don’t know where the next great idea will come from:  it could come from a kid with mathematical aptitude who is in 3rd grade in an inner city elementary school that has no funding for music, a kid whose family dreams only of her graduating from high school.  That’s the kid who we have to help get music now, get through high school, and get to college (and maybe even graduate school).

Like the bumper sticker says, if you think that the cost of education is high, consider that the cost of ignorance is higher.

I was in line to pay my property taxes once a few years ago and the middle-aged guy in front of me was yelling at the minimum-wage clerk whose job it was to take the check and stamp it payable to the town and give out the receipt. He was yelling at her because he was angry that his property taxes were too high. He was especially angry about the cost of education in his property taxes (they were listed so he could see how much of his property taxes were going to education and how much to firefighters etc.).  His argument was that since he didn't have kids, he shouldn't have to pay for someone else's kids' education.  He was ranting.  The clerk was standing there taking it, but close to tears.  She certainly had nothing to do with the decisions related to tax policy.  I interrupted the rant and asked him if he thought he might have to have prostate surgery in about 10 or 15 years.  He said that he thought it was possible.  I asked him if he knew about the doctor who would do that surgery for him.  Where was that doctor right now?  He said he didn't know.  I told him I did.  That doctor is in middle school or high school right now.  I asked him, "Do you want that kid to have a good education before he [I deliberately chose that pronoun because I didn't think he could manage the idea of it being a woman] operates on your genitals?  Or a bad education? What's your choice?"  The question stopped him in his tracks.  He turned to the clerk and said, "Take the check."

After he left, she high-fived me.

Please support candidates who support public education; more importantly - please support public education.  It's cheaper than the alternative.

Originally posted to fatherof2 on Sun Aug 05, 2012 at 04:18 PM PDT.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge and Community Spotlight.

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