Control College Costs -- Before It's Too Late

Today, analysts as well as politicians from across the political spectrum are coming to agree that higher education, much like the housing-mortgage industry, is headed for a financial meltdown. Debate over how to address this crisis reached a fever pitch here in Texas recently and, in the process, garnered a great deal of national attention. That the rest of the country would be interested in a Texas skirmish is understandable, for the Lone Star State is not alone in its higher-education trials. Not only in Texas, but nationwide, college tuition and student-loan debt are escalating at unsustainable rates. To remedy this, reformers here are advancing solutions that, if successful, may come to be replicated in state legislatures across the country.

At the national level, average college tuition costs over the last 25 years have increased 440 percent. In Texas, between 2003 and 2009, statewide academic charges for students taking 15 semester credit hours at a public university increased 72 percent in constant dollars. Yet median family income in the state declined 1.5 percent from 1999-2009. To pay for tuition, students and their parents in this state, as in the other 49, have taken on historic levels of debt. At one trillion dollars, total national student-loan debt is now—for the first time in our history—greater than credit-card debt. The surge in tuition is pricing top public universities out of the reach of middle-class families. Lower-income students have access to scholarships, grants, and other need-based aid. Higher-income parents can afford tuition for their children. But families in between are being squeezed increasingly.

How did we get to this point? Two factors play important roles in the explosion of college tuition. According to research conducted by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, “at research universities in the United States between 1988 and 2004, it is estimated that teaching loads fell 42 percent. Even in private liberal arts colleges that pride themselves on their attention to instruction, those loads fell 32 percent.” Falling teaching loads are the natural, logical response to the incentives currently operating in higher education. Faculty promotion and prestige are based in large part on publications, which enhance a school’s national reputation. Faculty publications play a role in a college’s ranking in U.S. News Best Colleges, the holy grail of academic status. In contrast, excellent teachers are known by a comparative few. Aside from perhaps a once-in-a-career teaching award, they are less likely to be rewarded than are their more-research-oriented peers. Small wonder, then, that under the current system, both faculty and administrators see lower teaching loads as a verification of excellence.

Along with decreased teaching productivity, increased administrative staffing raises the price of college. “Forty years ago,” reports Benjamin Ginsberg, “U.S. colleges employed more faculty than administrators. But today, teachers make up less than half of college employees.” As documented in Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty, “forty years ago, the efforts of 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staff. Since then, the number of full-time professors increased slightly more than 50 percent, while the number of administrators and administrative staffers increased 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.” Adjusting for inflation, from 1947 to 1995, “overall university spending increased 148 percent. Administrative spending, though, increased by a whopping 235 percent. Instructional spending, by contrast, increased only 128 percent, 20 points less than the overall rate of spending increase.” Senior administrators have done particularly well under the new regime. From 1998 to 2003, deans and vice presidents saw their salaries increase as much as 50 percent, and “by 2007, the median salary paid to a president of a doctoral degree-granting institution was $325,000.”

Given the straitened circumstances within which students, parents, taxpayers, and state legislatures find themselves these days, the above statistics are disconcerting. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that the affordability crisis in higher education appears to have had little effect on the growth in administration nationally. According to the Higher Education Employment Report, “cigHHolleges and universities continued to focus more on hiring administrators and executives over faculty in Q1 2012, although the rate of change has slowed.”

All of this has not been lost on prospective students and their parents. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 57 percent of potential students nationally say that the higher education system fails to provide good value for the cost, and 75 percent say college is unaffordable. In Texas, in late 2010, Baselice and Associates conducted a public opinion survey commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The survey reveals that strong and, at times, overwhelming majorities of Texas voters think the state’s public colleges and universities can reduce their operating costs while improving teaching. The survey found that seventy-one percent of voters believe that Texas colleges and universities can improve teaching while reducing operating costs. Eighty-seven percent believe college professors should be required to teach in the classroom at least six hours per week. When asked how universities should deal with the budget shortfall, the top three choices of voters were: (1) reduce administrative overhead; (2) delay new facilities; and (3) require professors to teach more students and do less research. Raising tuition or taxes were the least favorable options, at six percent and ten percent respectively.  

These surveys demonstrate that public perception has caught up with economic reality. This bodes well for the prospect of meaningful reform. With both the economic data and public opinion on their side, reformers are advancing an ambitious agenda for the upcoming Texas legislative session, which begins in January. Following Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University, as well as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, reformers are pushing the legislature to require all the state’s public colleges and universities to increase aggregate credit hours taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty by ten percent. This measure would begin to restore the balance between teaching and research that has been lost over the past several decades. In the process, it would do more than simply address the affordability crisis, important as that is. Equally critical, it would put more full-time professors back in face-to-face contact with students in the classroom. If administered correctly, this increase in teaching productivity would reduce both class sizes and the dependence on graduate students to teach introductory courses. Smaller classes taught by more-experienced faculty will increase student-learning outcomes without increasing tuition costs.

While this measure may today be the most prominent of the reforms urged on the Texas legislature, it is but one of many. In my next essay, I shall describe other initiatives that, like this one, aim to demonstrate that education quality and affordability need not be mutually exclusive alternatives.  

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