, , ,

In The New York Times, Paul Campos has an excellent piece on why college tuition is so damned high. Contrary to the usual progressive whinging, it’s not thanks to reduced public spending. While states may have (and often have not) reduced their spending on their university systems, the federal government has more than picked up the tab between the Pell Grant (almost $40 billion this past year), the GI Bill (about $42 billion), and subsidized student loans. The federal government has seen growth in spending for education rise five times faster than the military budget since the Vietnam days. Even the alleged “cuts” by states is bogus:

State appropriations reached a record inflation-adjusted high of $86.6 billion in 2009. They declined as a consequence of the Great Recession, but have since risen to $81 billion.

And despite that, the cost of education has not gone down. To get more of that tasty federal dosh, universities keep raising prices — up about four fold from the ’60s — knowing that the feds will alway pony up Pell or GI Bill cash, and students, not hit immediately by the damage of student debt, will cover with more loans.

So why is this the case, when universities are cutting tenure positions for part time instructors, and faculty find themselves with increasing workloads that dramatically reduce their use to the students? Campos points to one of the main issues in nearly every organization as the culprit: administration. Professors are making fairly close to the same amount of money they made in the golden age of 1960s academia, but their work load has increased, thanks to constant refrains of “everyone needs a college degree” that have been sung since the 1980s. This push to load up on a liberal arts education has not served the students of the United States particularly well. Depending on your major, a college degree is definitely worth it…if you went into math, the sciences, technology, or some medical service field. But for that multitude humanities and liberal arts majors, certification inflation has made even Starbucks jobs are getting hard to come by. Meanwhile, the administration of public universities has metastasized and is killing off the institutions that they feed on.

According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.

These are positions that are mostly not income-generating ones. Each bum in a classroom seat is income generating; those students are there to learn from professors. They (and the sports teams they general piss and moan about getting too much money, but which often generate as much from their programs as they use) are the moneymakers. Worse, these administrative positions are often vastly better paid than the faculty. In some cases, this might be warranted; often they are not.

In this, universities are symptomatic of an issue that infects nearly every business, every government office, every charitable institution, military bureacracies, even vast criminal enterprises — there is a large pool of sclerotic middle management that does very little, but in their efforts to appear relevant and necessary, often create huge inefficiencies in their host group. In the military, this is often seen in the NCO corps or the field rank officers where that slack-jawed “leader” is promoted to prevent them from getting too many people killed; we often called them the “shit fairies”, because they came in just to crap on everything. These are the street lieutenants in gangs who loyal enough to mostly trust, but not with the money. These are the vast hordes of school administrators at your public schools who make for times the teachers and do nothing…but attend teachers’ union meetings. They’re the ass kissers who are just connected enough to not get fired, but not really good enough at doing to leave in the field, or the lab, or the workspace; but they are also not the idea guys, the big sellers, the motivators. They are costly and the arrest progress much of the time.

sS an aside, recently, in discussing the idea of the basic income guarantees, one of my mathematicians friends made a much better case for the BIG than any of the true believers. He pointed out that, in essence, middle management is where those just motivated enough to keep their jobs, but not talented or motivated enough to excel fall. Their employment is a systemic income guarantee program. After all, you need people to make enough money to buy the crap necessary to keep the economy healthy; iWatches aren’t gonna buy themselves.

Much of the problem from government spending on down to university budgets is this class of ticks, who suck more money than they’re worth out of the host body, and return very little, if anything. Much like a corporation, or a government department, cost containment and efficiencies could be realized by pairing out redundant positions and departments (looking at you most of DHS), and paying the people what their labor is actually worth. In the case of universities, streamlining multiple lines of administration is a good start, but it does not address the issues created by having a third party pay for a service for the customer. There is no incentive for the customer to be savvy about their educational choices — that BA in Art History was a great idea! — and there’s no real way for the third party payer to judge quality and value of the service being delivered; just as in medical case insurance, loan and grant providers are not the receiver of the goods and services.

Fortunately, the glut of useless bachelor and masters degree holders, and the much degraded quality of education they’ve been provided with by small faculties who are overly politicized and under-motivated, is starting to limit demand for higher education. Students and their helicopter parents have begun to realize that accruing massive debt for a degree of middling utility is not a wise use of a student’s time or money. Those who just want to learn can do so quite easily with an internet connection and some reading time; those who need certification are already behind the eight ball, for the time being. This reduced demand is already showing in dropping enrollment stats around American higher education facilities — roughly 20% drops in enrollment over the last three years. Charging Jaguar prices for a Ford Aspire isn’t a healthy, or sustainable business model, but the subsidizing of public universities has insulated them, until recently, from the realities of the world.

In a world where supply and demand held sway, this would have already sorted itself out, but so long as there is a source of state monies that feed the self-sustaining bureaucracies of the university systems around the nation, this problem is unlikely to sort itself out soon.