Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The True Cause Of College-Tuition Inflation?

For college students and their parents, the steady spike in tuition prices in recent decades has been not only troubling but mysterious: why on earth is tuition inflation double the general inflation rate? What’s behind these huge tuition bills: Massive legacy costs? Less public funding? The cost of acquiring real estate?

While none of those reasons are necessarily off the table, consider this article by Tamar Lewin in today’s Times:

Over the last two decades, colleges and universities doubled their full-time support staff while enrollment increased only 40 percent, according to a new analysis of government data by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a nonprofit research center.

During the same period, the staff of full-time instructors, or equivalent personnel, rose about 50 percent, while the number of managers increased slightly more than 50 percent.

Support staff! And what kind of work are they doing?

The growth in support staff included some jobs that did not exist 20 years ago, like environmental sustainability officers and a broad array of information technology workers. The support staff category includes many different jobs, like residential-life staff, admissions and recruitment officers, fund-raisers, loan counselors, and all the back-office staff positions responsible for complying with the new regulations and reporting requirements colleges face.

This explanation seems satisfying (intellectually, at least, if not emotionally). But it’s probably also important to consider how much money colleges have been putting into student amenities as well. When I visited my undergrad alma mater a few years ago, the chancellor pointed out that three buildings had gone up in the past decade or so that were each larger than any existing building on campus. There was a library, a convocation center (a multipurpose arena), and a huge student gym. The gym, he said, was a top priority because parents and prospective students increasingly think of themselves as customers, shopping for the most amenities for the best price, and the colleges that didn’t come to grips with this would soon see their customers going elsewhere.

Let Those That Have (education) Ears, Hear . . .

"According to this Deseret News article, University classrooms will be obsolete by 2020. BYU professor David Wiley envisions a world where students listen to lectures on iPods, and those lectures are also available online to everyone anywhere for free. Course materials are shared between universities, science labs are virtual, and digital textbooks are free. He says, 'Higher education doesn't reflect the life that students are living ... today's colleges are typically tethered, isolated, generic, and closed.' In the world according to Wiley, universities would still make money, because they have a marketable commodity: to get college credits and a diploma, you'd have to be a paying customer. Wiley helped start Flat World Knowledge, which creates peer-reviewed textbooks that can be downloaded for free, or bought as paperbacks for $30."

Now tell us again how taxes should be paying for future construction of more facitilies.