I’ve been acutely aware of the rising tide of complaint/whining about rising tuitions at universities over the past few years. As a professor at a research university in a relatively poor state, I am sensitive to this problem. As a father of three small children of my own that I hope to one day put through college, I am personally concerned that the continuation of current absurd rates of tuition increase will make this goal impossible.
I grow tired, however, of continued complaining about this issue that refuses to address the reasons for this trend. Alan Jacobs’ piece on The American Conservative website is just the latest example. The sighing tone of this piece, and it’s total lack of discussion of the causes of tuition increases, damns universities and their employees by implication. This is just a disingenuous version of more overt attacks out there. I am sick and tired of hearing that faculty are overpaid (we must be the only sector of the economy where paying for excellence in the labor force is seen as a vice, not a virtue) and that universities are full of fat that could be cut.
This. Is. Garbage.
You want to know why your children’s tuitions are rising? There are two reasons. For those of you worried about public university tuitions, the math is simple – state appropriations have been cut dramatically over the past decade, and universities have to make the difference up somewhere. In short, those of you who insist on paying less in taxes are the drivers of tuition increases. Considering that personnel costs make up more than 80% of most institution’s budgets, when you cut the state appropriation to a public university by, oh, about half (such as has happened at the University of South Carolina) the result is inevitable: raising tuition to cover the missing revenue, and hiring fewer faculty to replace retirees…so students end up paying more while getting less and less face-to-face with faculty.
This is not because public universities are “fat and lazy.” It’s because higher education, like so many other things in our society, has become a site of “user pays” mentality. Instead of seeing higher education as a societal good (educated workforce that brings/creates better jobs, more informed citizenry, more vibrant arts, etc.), we now see it as something that only the student should pay for. Of course, all of those collateral benefits still exist – the economic multiplier for universities remains pretty impressive – but now society gets those “for free”, as it burdens the creators of the multiplier with staggering debt, weighing them down. Actually, we probably get less of those benefits now than we did, given that crushing debt doesn’t typically engender opportunities for risk taking and innovation. In other words, all of you who think that you shouldn’t have to pay for universities or other forms of higher education because you are not using them, recognize that you are leaching off of those of us who work for those institutions, and the students who go to them – you are reaping the benefits of the university without making any contribution. This hardly strikes me as personal responsibility. If you want to pay for what you get, pay your damn taxes so the innovative class leaving universities can actually spend some time, you know, innovating, creating jobs, broadening the tax base, and enriching the community…instead of paying off crushing debt.
Now, for private universities the story is rather different. I do not claim to know the financial situations of every private university in America, and I know a good number are in serious financial trouble…often because their endowments were crushed by the 2008 economic downturn. But if you want to see what drives a chunk of the increase in the private university realm, read this article by Julia Edwards. Basically, a number of private schools have been raising tuitions because we are suckers…if it more expensive, it must be good. I have no idea what these institutions are spending their money on – though I am sure some of it is salary (if only because average salaries, in most disciplines, are higher at private institutions than public institutions). Whether that extra salary really equates to extra quality…honestly, I have no idea. I can say that in Geography, which has no graduate presence in the Ivy League, and which is dominated by big public institutions, I strongly doubt the cost/quality equation holds – at least on average*. It seems to me, then, that a lot of people are paying a lot of tuition for the illusion of higher quality, but nobody will admit that, because if we don’t go along with the polite fiction then a lot of people would be forced to admit that they incurred a lot of debt for nothing (which, of course, they did). And look at that, we are back to personal responsibility – don’t complain about rising tuitions you helped stoke when you decided that a higher price tag was a good proxy for higher quality education.
The chart in the middle of the Edwards article says it all – you can see the debt of students at private institutions start to take off in the early 2000s, as our ballooned economy enabled more people to behave like suckers and overpay for a product they assumed was superior. At public universities, it shoots up right at the end of the series, in 2009-10. Why? Because this is when the first students to experience the remarkably steep tuition hikes that accompanied the decline of public spending after the 2008 fiscal crisis started to graduate. Two different drivers. Same outcome. And to some extent, the same problem – a total lack of personal responsibility on the part of the citizenry of this country when it comes to higher education. People decided they could free-ride on college students and their families, or chose to make uninformed consumer decisions about higher education. And now people are reaping the consequences, and having the gall to refuse to look at themselves as the cause.
It’s your fault. Deal with it. And then go fix it. Stop paying for prestige’s sake. Stop electing people who tell you that you can have all the benefits of a leading public university for little or no public cost. Start taking responsibility for the things you want. Stop blaming everyone else.
*That said, I know of several faculty at private institutions in my discipline who are flat out amazing, including a significant segment of the department at Syracuse. These folks are worth every dime. But a few exceptional people at private institutions does not invalidate the larger point that most of the time the difference in quality between a public school’s and a private school’s education is less than the difference in the price tag.
As a sort of answer to Beloit College’s annual mindset list (where the authors remind faculty of all of the things that we might think of as watershed events, but which took place before our current freshmen were born),
Douglas Paulin Bruce Krajewski has written “The 2011 Mind-Set of Faculty (Born before 1980)” for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Well, I am faculty, and I was born before 1980. I remember 1980, dimly, as it involved the end of first grade and the beginning of second grade. In any case, I am clearly supposed to be represented by this list, so I thought I would have a look through. Then I decided, as part of the target group, that I had the right to annotate the list. And therefore I have:
1. The faculty members freshmen will encounter are likely teaching more and larger classes and doing more “service” than ever before at the same pay or less as faculty were three or four years ago.
Yeah, this is true. Depressingly true.
2. A growing percentage of faculty members rarely meet in person the students they are teaching, thanks to absentee learning, more commonly known as online education.
I don’t meet my students because they never come to office hours. Seriously. Even when I beg and explain that coming to review a test with me has an average impact of more than a dozen points on the next test . . .
3. Freshmen will encounter some faculty members who first used “iPhone” as a noun and a verb, as in “I will phone, I have phoned,” etc.
Dude, save the cranky for someone else. Put it on a list of faculty born before 1960. The rest of us are not so weirded out by technology.
4. Faculty members who have been teaching for more than a decade are most likely indifferent to the Kardashians, celebrity-wannabe housewives, desperate or otherwise, from any city or county on either coast, especially the ones from New Jersey.
Yep. But lord how I did love me the MTV music awards back in the day. When they were live, and people did stupid things on the show. It was like watching the collapse of Western Civilization condensed into a few hours. I’m still unclear as to how the world survived the Spice Girls. For a number of postmodernists, there was nothing left after them . . .
5. Those same faculty members are regarded by many parents, administrators, and state legislators as lazy, inefficient, and unaccountable. If it were not for all the work the faculty members must do, they would have the time to live down to those expectations.
Whiny, but true. We do need much better PR.
6. The faculty members freshmen will encounter in the classroom are probably untenured and working part time, with many employed at more than one institution and feeling loyalty to no employer.
This is an appalling trend in higher ed, and nobody seems to care. It is going to blow up higher ed in the United States within a generation if it is not addressed. Simply put, we won’t get the best people teaching in universities if the jobs go to crap. As my mother said about teaching elementary school, once people viewed that as a good career. Now very few people seem to take it seriously – I fear that faculty positions will be headed that way soon.
7. Faculty members born before 1970—we have to reach back a bit further here—are usually willing to help students learn how to pretend to give a damn about their education, and are involved in less absentee teaching and learning than their younger colleagues.
Er, we give a damn. So do the younger folks. But universities make it hard to show this for a lot of structural reasons . . .
8. Faculty members born before 1980 said “Wii” to express the euphoria they felt as children when sledding down a hill.
See my comment for #3, cranky.
9. Faculty members born before 1980 rarely feel a need to respond immediately to anything and have particularly “procrastinaty” reactions to messages that students label “urgent.”
Um, no. But thanks for perpetuating that stereotype, which works against serious engagement with the policy community (who assume we procrastinate and cannot work to deadlines).
10. Faculty members born before 1980 remember a world in which people lived entire days without access to bottled water.
Yep. I do not understand bottled water at all.
11. Faculty members born before 1980 (and who didn’t live in Seattle) remember a world without Starbucks, in which people made their own coffee each morning. In those days, tap water was potable and “barista” was not yet a word typically spoken outside of Italy.
Also yep. I make my own coffee at work (admittedly, with a press, which makes me half pretentious, I guess. But it costs me about $.25 for a huge mug of coffee, which also makes me frugal!)
12. Freshmen will encounter some faculty members who used to work at institutions where faculty governance did not require the inclusion of administrators, advisory boards, and regents in academic decisions.
<<chuckling>> No comment . . .
13. Faculty members born before 1980 grew up during a time when “like” represented the beginning of a simile, rather than a piece of verbal confetti.
See comments on #3 and #8. Please, please don’t let me be this cranky in two decades. This guy is busy leading a lot of students to assume that we are all living the life of the mind, without interest in TVs, pop culture or technology. He would be wrong.
14. Many faculty members prefer Mae to Kanye West.
Boring faculty members, maybe. Seriously, Mae West peaked out so long ago that the faculty that were into her are now dead.
15. Faculty members who have been teaching for more than a decade remember when C was an average grade students received in courses, because it represented an ancient concept called “satisfactory.”
Oh lord, how true. Even better are those who think they deserve an A because they tried hard. I swear, our refusal to keep score in children’s sports is killing our society. Kids need to learn that sometimes you try really hard, and sometimes you might even be the better player or team, but you might still lose. Effort is a major part of success, but not everything . . .
16. Faculty members who have been teaching for more than a decade do not refer to students as “customers,” and to anyone as a “stakeholder” (not even Buffy, if those faculty members even know who Buffy is).
I will never call a student a customer. Ever. I work for a university, which is NOT A BUSINESS. It is not a for-profit enterprise, it is a public good that needs to operate on a different set of principles.
I work in development, so the term stakeholder gets thrown around a lot . . . but not in my academic life.
17. Faculty members born before 1980 remember when the word “chancellor” referred to a short German person with a mustache. (In a way, it usually still does.)
I have no idea what this is about. Whatevs.
18. Freshmen will encounter some faculty members who can recollect a time when sports coaches were other faculty members who were not receiving million-dollar salaries. (See here what the world of student athletes has become.)
Not me – perhaps because I have always taught at large state or private research institutions. I was in high school during the Jerry Tarkanian UNLV days of college basketball, and I ran for the University of Virginia. College sports has been big business for as long as I can remember.
19. The same faculty members can recall when stadiums were built without sky boxes for indulged alumni, and when tailgating meant that you were following too closely behind someone while driving on the highway, all the while neither talking on a cellphone nor texting.
Now this I do remember. Scott Stadium at UVa used to be a mess . . . and don’t get me going about U-Hall. But then he goes all Luddite again, which translates nicely into . . .
20. We (i.e., the “they” the Beloit people use to refer to anyone older who is not “you” freshmen) never used libraries as restaurants or coffee shops. We faced books; we did not facebook.
This guy annoys me with this stuff. A lot.
21. The “you” that is you will eventually become the “they” that is us.
Thanks for the brief exposition on time. I knew this, even as an 18 year old. They’re not all that stupid . . .
22. “We” never promoted Jonas Brothers-like/Palinesque abstinence campaigns, which is why some of “you” are here, able to read this list. You’re welcome.
Was this supposed to be the politically edgy one? If so, he killed it with a dated Jonas reference. Dude, its all about the Bieber these days . . .
Summary: Neither funny nor all that accurate (I track about 8 of 22 as accurate or in any way interesting). FAIL