There’s been quite a bit of discussion about educational funding in general, especially higher education funding, over the last two to three years. It’s a highly politicized issue, and it should be, because it affects everyone. I’ve seen a range of opinions about the subject, and many of these opinions — even from people who know better, or should — often lack nuance, grasp of significant detail, and an awareness of the forces working against colleges and universities to provide more inexpensive and thus more accessible higher education. Tuition prices are rising at rates far exceeding that of the general inflation rate, and many people think that colleges are to blame. There’s some truth to this impression, but people often don’t know what exactly it is, and there’s only some truth to this impression. It’s hardly the whole story. It’s not even most of the story.
I’d like to tell you a bit about myself before I start so that you know what background and point of view I bring to this discussion. I started working full time at age 19, the weekend after my honeymoon. I worked as an electrician for over sixteen years, with fourteen years construction management experience (I earned my journeyman’s license two years after starting the trade). From my first day on the job I knew I didn’t want to be an electrician all of my life (though it was great experience for me), so after earning my journeyman’s license I realized that I needed to start college.
I started at Valencia Community College at age 23, earned my A.A., attended U.C.F. for a year (a.k.a. U Can’t Finish), and then transferred to Rollins College’s evening program, the Hamilton Holt School, where I finished my B.A. in English at age 32. I continued to work as an electrician until I started graduate school three years later, entering a Ph.D. program in English at Drew University. In 2004 I completed requirements for my M.Phil. degree, then returned to Rollins College as a full-time Lecturer in English, where I worked until I completed my dissertation. The year I graduated I started in my current position as Assistant Professor of English, where I have worked for five years now.
While in graduate school I did adjunct teaching for my own institution, another four-year private liberal arts college nearby, and a community college, so that I have experience teaching at five different colleges in three different states: one community college (NJ), three private liberal arts colleges (two in NJ and one in FL), and one private professionally-oriented institution (OH). I also worked about 30 hours a week in the Financial Aid Office as the Administrative Assistant for the Director; after about a year, I was given increasing responsibilities in the Admissions Office and the Registrar’s Office, so that I was made Coordinator of Enrollment Services with responsibilities in Admissions, the Registrar’s Office, and Financial Aid.
I worked in this position full time from the time I completed my graduate coursework until I graduated with my M.Phil. Many of my responsibilities were web-based, such as entering the catalog onto the University’s web servers, setting up a Policies and Procedures Manual online not only for my own office, but helping almost every office on campus establish one, and working as a liasion between Admissions and the University Webmaster’s office, working out different ways to promote Drew University to students exploring us online. I also developed an online version of our Financial Aid budget survey (by which we determine total cost of attendance) and started developing an online FERPA test. My last year at Drew University I was elected Graduate Student Association President, a responsibility that included serving on the University Budget Committee — a real learning experience, as I had to sit in on meetings in which every department on campus presented its budget to the V.P. for Finance and make its case for its budget request. The committee had to vote to approve or deny each department’s budget request.
So before graduating with my Ph.D. I gained extensive administrative experience: a little bit, in fact, from most departments on campus, with extensive experience in Admissions, the Registrar’s Office, and the Financial Aid Office. Since arriving at my current institution, I’ve served as Program Chair for the Humanities Division in the College of Arts and Science and for the Masters of Humanities program, for whom I extensively revised the curriculum (a redesign that seems to have worked as enrollment has more than doubled since my curriculum redesign).
Now don’t take this administrative history to mean that I haven’t been teaching: I typically taught a 4-4 load at Rollins College (though only contracted for 3-3) and have taught a 4-4 load continuously at my current institution, even while serving as chair. I think I’ve gone maybe one summer without teaching since 2000, and I have certainly taught every summer since the summer that I finished my dissertation. I’ve also invested a great deal in scholarship too: I have a book, articles, book reviews, poetry and fiction, one show (mixed media: my poetry with a photographer’s work), and twenty-two conference presentations, and I will be a summer scholar for an NEH Summer Seminar this year. So I’ve seen how universities work from many different angles, participating in university life as an administrator, a teacher, and a scholar.
From the perspective provided to me by this background I would like to shed what little bit of light on this issue that I can.
Universities are in financial distress for three reasons:
1. “We,” and I mean the collective “we,” “we” as a nation, are unwilling to fund it. Now, don’t get me wrong — “we” always fund it. We either fund it through tax allocations, or we fund it through tuition dollars, which more often than not means debt. What this means, then, is that the costs of higher education are being transferred from tax dollars that you’re already paying to debt that you need to incur. No one benefits from this debt but banks, by the way.
To say it another way: college tuition costs so much because we’d rather fund unnecessary wars than our children’s education. It doesn’t get any more complex than this. The adjacent graph from a recent article in The Atlantic is probably all that you need to see — average state cuts are around 28%. Only two states have increased educational funding. Alaska only marginally decreased it (3.2% down), while the majority of states range from cuts of 14.5% (North Carolina) to 50.4% (Arizona).
The chart (left) speaks for itself.
2. College tuition is going up because colleges and universities are being treated like for-profit entities rather than the non-profit entity that they are. While this point sounds more like a mindset, it does very much affect spending patterns. I recently reblogged a talk delivered by Prof. Beni Balak of Rollins College about what difference a for-profit model/mentality makes. I’d like to quote it again here:
So let’s start with what for-profits are broadly. Everyone likes to tell me the joke about how “aren’t all colleges for profit; hee hee.” Trust me, I’ve heard that one. Yes, we all increasingly participate in profit-seeking activities, but the difference lies in what one can do with that profit: it’s the difference between profit-taking versus reinvestment.
That difference between “profit-taking verses reinvestment” is all of the difference in the world.
A typical for-profit business — one that sells to the general public, rather than to elite customers, such as those for high-end sports cars — will cut costs as much as possible and raise prices as high as possible. That gap between costs and price is the business’s profit, which goes to the business’s owner(s), whether it is owned by a sole proprietor, a group, or stockholders. The purpose of the business, in this case, is not necessarily its product, but to make money for its owners, although the best businessmen value the product and their customers as well. In other words, it is in the business of profit-taking.
The mindset of a non-profit entity is entirely different. A typical non-profit is service-oriented: it’s trying to help as many people as possible within its sphere of influence. The goal here is to provide the most service that budget limitations will allow. It’s a service mindset rather than a profit mindset, so when it has a budget surplus, it reinvests that surplus back into the non-profit.
Now keep in mind that universities are non-profit entities when you hear this story: not that long ago, the President of the University of Toledo was awarded a $150,000 “longevity bonus” by UT’s Board of Directors the same year that about 100 positions were eliminated at the science and health campus. Can you wrap your head around that one? Is this a service mentality?
If you think this is an isolated incident, you should perhaps check out the results of the recent IRS compliance questionnaire, which was designed to explore whether or not college and university spending patterns were consistent with regulations for non-profit organizations. Here’s a quotation for you about the report from accountingtoday.com: “The IRS also found that on nearly 60 percent of the Form 990-Ts examined, colleges and universities had misallocated expenses to offset unrelated business income for specific activities.”
Your federal tax dollars are paying for business expenses unrelated to the educational mission of the institution. This is not to say that administrators don’t deserve to be well-paid. It’s just that those leading non-profit organizations should be paid following compensation structures similar to their for-profit counterparts. This issue is important across the non-profit sector at large; e.g., consider this recent story about the compensation structure for the Goodwill CEO and his wife. The media is complaining about the overcompensation of non-profit administrators and the IRS is investigating it. It’s time to stop it.
If you think a profit-model is a good one for higher education, think again: 63% to 67% of students at private non-profit institutions graduate in six years, compared to 27% to 30% at for-profit institutions. The profit motive just doesn’t help the educational sector.
3. The educational mission of colleges and universities have taken a back seat to… almost everything else. This third point is very closely related to the previous one. You need to understand that faculty salaries aren’t driving educational costs, because about 50% of all college classes are now being taught by adjunct or contingent faculty. Remember what I said about a for-profit model? When a school is being run following a for-profit model, faculty are just an expense that needs to be cut as much as possible. That’s why we’re relying more and more on adjunct instructors and why MOOCs are being touted as all the rage now: invest a few thousand dollars in a single MOOC and you can teach hundreds of thousands of students — if you can call giving students a reading list and making them passive recipients of information with no feedback on their work or any attempt to develop reasoning skills teaching.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Luddite. I teach online regularly, and I don’t see much difference between a MOOC and a seated lecture class with 400 students. I think MOOCs can be good recruiting tools and good supplements to seated courses, but they shouldn’t become our primary means of teaching.
What we cut is not nearly as telling as what we’re spending on, which includes premium salaries for top administrators. But not only that: our sports programs suck up an enormous amount of money too. In 41 out of 50 states, the highest paid state employees are college sports coaches. In the other nine states, they are university administrators. I’m not talking about state salaries just within the university systems, mind you. These are state salaries overall, including the governor.
Now you might say that college sports generate revenue, but if you look at the numbers, they don’t for most schools. Most schools have increased spending on sports by more than 10% over the last two years, and most schools spend more on sports than they make on sports. Only 23 Division I schools (out of 345, or less than 7%) reported a profit on athletics in 2011 and 2012 according to this ESPN.com article.
We’re also spending a lot more on administrative and other non-instructional staff, as pointed out by a recent Washington Monthly article:
Between 1975 and 2005, total spending by American higher educational institutions, stated in constant dollars, tripled, to more than $325 billion per year. Over the same period, the faculty-to-student ratio has remained fairly constant, at approximately fifteen or sixteen students per instructor. One thing that has changed, dramatically, is the administrator-per-student ratio. In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists, and the like—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio had dropped to one administrator for every sixty-eight students while the ratio of professional staffers had dropped to one for every twenty-one students.
If you think I’m just a griping faculty member, you might want to take note that the IRS is becoming concerned about administrative salaries at non-profit institutions as well.
So let me summarize:
We can’t afford to invest in teachers (so provide better educational quality) or provide lower tuition for students because we’re paying premium dollars for college sports and administrative support while cutting funding at the same time.
We cut funding to colleges and universities because we would rather spend $1 trillion dollars on a military jet that still doesn’t work than on educating our children. We’ve also experienced a recession and government revenues are down, but that’s not the whole story.
I want you to consider that your tax money is being spent in this way: not to educate your children, but to pay a few people at the top a lot of money. That’s your money I’m talking about. Your taxes.
I keep emphasizing this point because I’m getting to the really hard part of this article now: this situation is not the fault of university presidents, university board members, or sports coaches. This situation is your fault and my fault. We’re being given what we want. When prospective students visit a college campus, they can’t see good teaching. They can’t see that the teacher they’re meeting during their campus visit is a good teacher (a situation that MOOCs can actually help, now that I think about it). But they can see amenities, a stadium, a sports team, a building, and technology in the classroom. Alumni who later give to their college tend to follow typical patterns too: people will give to something they can see. That’s even true with church giving. But an endowment, a named chair, support for operating expenses so that we have fewer adjuncts and more full-time faculty? You can’t see that.
So I want to emphasize that it’s your money I’m talking about so that you can very deliberately choose how you spend it, give it, pay it, and want it spent — and make that choice known to your Congresspersons and to the colleges and universities that your children apply to, and to the colleges and universities that you contribute to as an alumnus.
What kind of thinking about higher education do I envision?
We can begin by treating schools like the non-profit organizations that they are, and treat them like organizations that provide a vital public service. We need educated people to function as a society. Even people who do not go to college benefit from those who do have college educations, as they are the doctors who care for them when sick, the teachers who educate them through high school and who educate their children, the engineers who design everything that they use on a daily basis, and the accountants and other administrators who help keep every business that they interact with running.
We value a school’s educational mission more than its business identity and invest accordingly. Instructors aren’t a liability. They are the ones serving the purpose of the institution on a daily basis. Instructors, as a group, care more about the education of students than any other group on campus, including students. They are a large body of highly educated and very committed individuals who present a great resource for any challenge that a college or university faces.
We hire university administrators and appoint university board members who have a public service mindset. They see their work for their colleges and universities as giving back to the country that has given so much to them.
We view students as our products and not our customers. We treat them as our customers only after they graduate. That’s when they’ll really know the value of what they learned and the meaning and value of what instructors do in the classroom.
We remember, first and last, that a university is all about educating students.
Should I even have to say it?