Today’s hot topic is: college costs too much! Much anger is focused on public university tuition that has risen faster than health care costs. It might seem that, similar to the medical establishment, higher public education can charge as much tuition as they want and nobody can do anything about it.
So what are the major causes of exorbitant tuition? Legislatures. Visionaries. And student customers.
State legislatures have switched from viewing education as a public good to a private good. Some states cut all higher education funding. When the 2007 recession dramatically trimmed many states’ tax revenues, their “public” universities were unaffected. They had already moved to “state in name only” and student tuition was underwriting all of the costs.
The second guilty party are the national and state “visionaries” that insist that everyone is college-able. From President Obama and Governor Brownback wanting 60 percent of citizens to have higher education degrees, to the Kansas Board of Regents insisting on growth in retention and graduation, the myth that everyone should go to college is printed on banners hanging in many high school hallways.
In the mid-1980s, 42 percent of the Kansas high school graduates went on to higher education. Today, twice that percent enter post-secondary schools. Most do not finish. Nationwide, about three-fourths of students who enter the private elite schools graduate, half who enter public universities graduate, and only one-fourth of those who enter community college graduate.
So even if the state legislatures supported higher education as a public, not private, good, there would be twice as many students to subsidize. Figures confirm this: in the 1980s the state provided two dollars for each one dollar the student paid in tuition. Today the state pays 92 cents in instructional costs for each dollar the student pays. Every non-college-able student in college draws money away from the college able. And now, KBOR pressure to grow and retain and graduate merely pushes public universities to inflate grades and de-value degrees.
But there is a third major factor contributing to the inflation in college costs: competition.
A feature article in the August 1 Chronicle of Higher Education describes the growing competition to attract students by campus beautification. The title says it all: “Spending Shifts as Colleges Compete on Students’ Comfort.” Substantial amounts of money are going into remodeling classrooms and student unions and dormitories that were perfectly functional. Spending on these “student services” is going up faster than spending on instruction.
The problem is simple: you can’t spend your educational dollars twice. Any commonsense Kansas farmer knows that having that reliable and productive green-and-yellow tractor working behind the house is more important than having a nice brick entrance to the front driveway. But college presidents are not Kansas farmers.
Many universities are shifting money to housing frills and expensive renovations of the campus and grounds to the detriment of the teaching force. “Instructional technology” using the latest fad equipment is obsolete in a few years, becoming another money pit. Higher administrators feel that it is more important to look teckie than to actually provide professors with the facilities that they request.
Where teckie gadgets are required, it drives up student costs and distances students from the remaining good faculty. Every dollar spent on “campus enhancements” is a dollar diverted from academics. Low salaries for new faculty then fail to recruit the best academics. More and more faculty are hired who are adjuncts. Fewer professor doors are open between classes.
It becomes a paradox: students are paying more but getting “cheaper” faculty, “cheaper” courses, and “cheaper” degrees.
Public universities are “lookin’ purty” and delivering less for more.