Why College Costs Are Rising, and What Not To Do About It

When Rick Santorum called President Obama a “snob” for urging every American to get at least some college education, the comment drew lots of media attention.  But Santorum’s quip is a sideshow.  The center stage of the political debate over higher education has to do with costs and accountability, and the challenges to colleges and universities are coming from all sides.  Conservatives lament the leftist ideological influence of college professors – an old, old claim that’s easy to either ignore or refute.  Obama’s proposal for cutting federal funding to universities that don’t control costs has more troubling and complicated implications, especially for working-class schools and students.

Those who work with working- and poverty-class students see the effects of rising college costs every day.  I heard it just last week from students in one of my classes, complaining about the difficulty of balancing 30-plus hours a week of physically- and psychologically-exhausting food service work with the reading load of an English major.  When I made my usual speech about slowing down, how they don’t have to hurry toward graduation and would get more out of their education if they took fewer courses each term, they gave me a quick lesson in financial aid: loans and grants often require full-time enrollment, and the college prices tuition in a way that saves them money if they load up on courses.  That explains the phantom students on my class lists, people who register and never attend class, just because they have to fill their schedules.  Given the choice between loans and a better GPA, they take the money and the Fs.

Rather than taking funding away, perhaps the Department of Education course revise the policies for financial aid to encourage students to attend part-time, removing the incentive to take more classes than they can handle at one time?  Maybe universities could price tuition in a way that reflected the realities of working students’ lives? The system seems to be set up to ensure that students will fail, instead of creating the conditions for success.

However, cutting funds to schools if they fail to keep costs down seems counterproductive.  If costs are rising, doesn’t it seem like we should focus on finding ways to make it more affordable to more people? For example, we could significantly expand policies and programs (like Pell Grants) that help make higher education possible for working-class students.  That seems like a no-brainer, and it would be if only we were having a serious conversation about why college costs are going up.  Yes, as the Daily Kos noted after Santorum’s “what a snob” speech, one problem is the decline in state funding, which is real and significant.  But colleges have seen the operating costs increase for a variety of reasons, some of which may help students, while others deserve real scrutiny.

One contributing factor is the campus building boom of the last decade.  Even when, as with new athletic and wellness facilities here at Youngstown State, the construction of new buildings is paid for by state capital investments or special fundraising efforts, new facilities require on-going staffing, equipment, maintenance, and utility costs.  University leaders claim that successful recruiting requires fancy new dorms and fitness centers, but I have to wonder whether temporary enrollment growth balances out with the permanent costs of keeping those buildings heated, cleaned, and so on.

Some believe that the culprit in rising costs is faculty salaries.  Just yesterday, in a Washington Post opinion piece, David Levy repeated the canard that faculty are incredibly overpaid because our middle-class salaries buy only a few hours of teaching time per week. When I testified before an Ohio Senate committee about the state’s anti-union bill in 2011, one of the senators explained that he supported the bill, which would have banned collective bargaining for faculty, because he was concerned about the cost of college.  Isn’t it true, he insisted, that the cost of college is going up because of the incredibly lucrative salaries of faculty?

It’s easy to scoff at such claims, and while both Levy and the State Senator are clearly wrong, it is true that faculty salaries have increased over time. The numbers can look dramatic, so we make an easy target.  When I started at YSU 22 years ago, Assistant Professors came in at $28,000 a year.  My new colleagues now begin with salaries a little more than $50,000 a year.  On the surface, it seems like faculty are making out like proverbial bandits, but of course, $28,000 in 1990 calculates as about $48,000 in 2012 dollars. So we’re still among the lowest-paid public university faculty in the state. And like many of our colleagues at public universities, we’re actually losing ground, not only because of inflation but also because, under pressure from conservative politicians and proposals like Ohio Senate Bill 5, we now pay significantly more towards health care and pensions.  During negotiations here last summer, we calculated that changes in how we pay for health care would cost the typical faculty member around $5000 a year.

If anyone were really concerned about personnel costs, they’d look at administrators and staff. While the pattern has leveled off in recent years, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that for the first decade of this century, college administrators saw their salaries increase at a rate of about 4% annually.  And not only do administrators cost more – look at the incredible growth in university presidents’ salaries – there are now more of them.  As Benjamin Ginsburg explains in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the Administrative University (Oxford UP, 2011), the ranks of administrators and staff have grown much faster than the faculty – 85% for administrators and 240% for staff, compared with 51% growth in the number of faculty between 1975 and 2005. In fact, many universities are cutting back on faculty, relying increasingly on part-time and limited-term faculty, who cost less. Some, like YSU, are also cutting lower-paid staff.  YSU has cut clerical and maintenance positions, slowing down a wide range of support services that have a direct effect on students’ experiences. If state and federal leaders want to see college costs cut, perhaps they should ask schools to justify the size of their administrative staff.  How many Vice Presidents does a University need?  How many Associate Provosts?  Faculty and students are doing more with less these days, while over in the administration building, they seem to be doing less with more.

It’s worth noting that some of the cost increases are worthwhile, because they contribute to students’ learning. Many campuses have expanded programs aimed at helping the increased numbers of working-class students coming to college, many of whom are succeeding because of peer support, tutoring, and other programs.  Addressing the needs of working-class students also requires other costs.  For example, while wealthier students bring their own computers to campus, working-class institutions have to provide access to technology, another piece of the learning puzzle that generates on-going costs, especially as faculty develop smarter ways of using digital pedagogies.   As government bodies push for cost cutting, they need to recognize that difference between expenses that help students and those that don’t.

Obama’s policy has good intentions, and it seems designed to appeal to families that are struggling to pay for college. Unfortunately, it’s too broad-brushed to consider the complexity of college costs, and it may well contribute to widespread misunderstandings about colleges as non-productive institutions that focus more on increasing their profits – as if public universities were ever money-making operations! — than on educating students.

Worse, the policy may not work in ways that really help working-class students.  Many schools will respond as YSU has: by cutting support staff, replacing full-time faculty with temporary and part-time instructors, blaming faculty for increased costs rather than acknowledging the costs associated with new facilities or extra administrators, and generally undermining the quality of education for the all students, especially those who are working all those extra hours now and taking on long-term debt for their futures in order to be here.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Can California Dreaming Remain a Vital Part of the Future of American Labor?

Over the last decades in the most cynical hours in the latest nights of the seediest barrooms and meeting halls where organizers would inevitably gather to cry in their beer and gnash their teeth about the prospects for our movement and the legacy of our generation, we would still perk up our ears and gladden our hearts with hope when we listened to reports of work in Los Angeles.

We would do so with good reason.   Los Angeles had gone from a union free bastion 50 years ago, led by the Los Angeles Times and the world of Chinatown, to the place where the demographics and politics seemed to be coming together to create the shining union city rising like the waves on the Pacific Coast.  The LA MAP (Los Angeles Manufacturing Action Project)  had offered a new way to frame and target the work.  The Los Angeles AFL-CIO had seemed to be a model for the future with its own organizing director, research department, and political program.  SEIU’s Justice for Janitors organizing campaign and its victory emboldened the city and the nation.  Immigrant, almost casual drywall workers were changing construction unions.  The largest union elections since the CIO drives enrolled hundreds of thousands of home healthcare workers.  There were organizing drives in hotels and hospitals; old CP organizers had pioneered public sector unionization and many of the locals continued to be progressive; resources were marshaled and spent; the labor movement was robust and confident; and mayors were made and broken.

Some of the romance and hope for the proposition that organizing in California, and especially Los Angeles, would lead the way for resurgence of the labor movement infuses the spirit and premise of Working for Justice: The LA Model of Organizing and Advocacy(Cornell UP, 2011), edited by Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro. If many of us did not believe this was true, or at least still possible, why would we give a second thought to a book that avowedly presents itself as offering a Los Angeles “model of organizing and advocacy?”  The book offers well executed case studies of organizing efforts among informal workers, like car washers and taxi drivers, who are among the constituencies that I firmly believe hold our future hopes, if we have any, as well as other essays on the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Network (NDLON) worker centers and HERE’s hotel drives that are strong enough that we were proud to reprint them as excerpts in Social Policy magazine.  Having done so, I am unabashedly a fan and advocate of the book as an invaluable learning tool for organizers and any others with an interest in rebuilding the labor movement and its allied trades in related endeavors of social change.  Ruth Milkman, Joshua Bloom, and Victor Narro’s work here deserves our appreciation and close reading.

Unfortunately one of the book’s challenges is that while the “promise” may be in California, the premise that a model is being built seems overstated.  At the most basic level a model is something that can be replicated by others.  A model could be picked up by energetic community, labor, immigrant, and other organizers and transplanted to other soil outside of Los Angeles and California.  A model must be sustainable over time.  Searching for models in Working for Justice is a treasure hunt at the other end of the rainbow:  we can see the direction to go, but it is pretty clear that we will not find anything once we get there.

This is an issue that is left over from Milkman’s earlier volume, L. A. Story:  Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U. S. Labor Movement (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006) where we were inspired by the similar stories of drywall construction (1992) and janitorial organizing (1990) and the new dawn coming in that California dreamscape brought to us by dramatic strategies by unions like HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and surprisingly even the Carpenters.  Unfortunately, we woke up later, and those stories turned out not to presage the future but to be isolated castles in the darkening sky after all.  In the introduction to Working for Justice the authors indicate that these essays date to that period and gestated until published in this volume.

One almost might read the two books as companion volumes of a sort.  Both speak to a sense of California leading the way.  Milkman’s L.A. Story is different, though, in that it concluded, among other things, that victory came from top to bottom with a model that owed more to the “art of the deal,” than to a sense of a workers’ movement gaining power.  Working for Justice almost seems to be the antidote to that earlier analysis, changing the emphasis from the top tier of union leadership and mechanics to the bottom level of advocates and non-traditional methodology and formations.  Sadly, the case made twice is no truer than the same story told once, regardless of the direction of the analysis, and time has shown that models are still nowhere to be found in either instance.

No sense in quibbling though.  The labor movement needs direction signals badly in our current death spiral, and, arguably, given the turtle shell tendencies of most of institutional labor, we are as likely to find the path to new paradigms in the work of advocates as any others.  Unfortunately, too often communications between union organizers and labor advocates is a one-way conversation, partially because these are not chats among equals sharing a common language given the different definitions of “base” and disparate resources.  Working for Justice tries to force them to sit at the same table and learn.

An underappreciated, yet critical, element of the Los Angeles story and the California dream for labor has rested on two foundations that are now increasingly shaky.  One at the very heart of the California dream, and the one that brought my grandparents there from bankrupt farms in the Dakotas, held that California was the land of riches with money enough for all.  The other hardrock underpinning this structure was the belief that the continued high density of unions in the state would give sufficient political heft and resources to weld something sturdy and unique from the public and private resources of the state.  Seismic change has now crumbled some of these foundations, given the multi-billion dollar financial crisis of the state, the teetering real estate market, and the continued decline of labor density.  The rest of the country outside of a couple of other islands in our stormy seas, just does not look, feel, or operate like this, making “models” even more difficult to duplicate.   Relatively speaking, being an organizer in California has too often been the organizing equivalent of the old saw about George W. Bush having been “born on third base and thinking he has hit a triple,” meaning there were advantages that were just assumed in organizing in California that in other cities and states were past the wildest aspirations.

Where else but in California could we even imagine finding the hope and tragedy of the United Farm Workers Union recounted by Miriam Pawel in The Union of Their Dreams:  Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (Bloomsbury Press, 2009).   When everything was working, it was the stuff of movies, books, and, well, yes, movements.  Politics, charisma, Hollywood, religion, and the American agricultural dreamscape of climate, soil, and vast immigrant labor came together for a moment to win unthinkable victories, benefiting from the liberal politics, alliances, and special circumstances of California.  Few organizers have ever understood the chemistry of combining a mass base constituency with public and political support to leverage economic strength better than Cesar Chavez, as both advocate and organizer.

Yet, Pawel’s chapters on the purges leading to the fatal weakening of the UFW in the often rumored, rarely reported toxic brew of cultural contradictions, new age weirdness, and old fashioned power struggles and personalities, drunk on the dream and unable to resist its fascination even as it grew nightmarish and corrosive, are some of the saddest chapters on organizing any will ever read.   Despite the commonality of all stories of death, even organizational death, Pawel’s tales and those of the advocates, organizers, and leaders she followed in this story are also somehow both deeply human and uniquely Californian.  I would love to have known Eliseo Medina then as he emerged as an energetic, dynamic youngster in the fields!  On the other hand there is no way a non-Californian or someone from any other foreign country can even imagine the UFW experience with Synanon, the former alternative and controversial drug treatment center specializing in group dynamics and behavioral modification, or its impact in those crazy days on Chavez and his lieutenants.   What might seem in California as simply forward and far ahead to the rest of the world was simply far out.

Randy Shaw put the best spin on the hopes for the impact of the UFW on the organizing in California and beyond in his 2008 book, Beyond the Fields:  Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century  (University of California, 2008).  He argued strenuously, if not convincingly, that we should judge the UFW legacy not necessarily for what was left in the field, but more perhaps for the continuum in organizing that came out of so many organizers, boycotters, and others who were attracted to the movement and kept the flame burning.

In the same way, no matter how hard Steve Early tries, his book on the crazy internal conflict between SEIU’s healthcare local unions and their national union in The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor:  Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or the Death Throes of the Old? (Haymarket Books, 2011) is also inherently an only-in-California story as well.  His story is the ugly side of the top-down model Milkman observed honestly and somewhat sympathetically in L.A. Story, when some of the giant fabricated locals created by all of the wheeling and dealing began to unravel.  Unfortunately, that story is often submerged as Early struggles, sometimes half-heartedly, to find a balanced perspective in following dissident leader Sal Rosselli with his narrow vision of “contract standards,” who is not as as right as Early would like him to be, versus Andy Stern, then president of SEIU with his equally small program of “McMuffin contracts,” who is not as wrong as Early believes either.  Early is also smitten by his romantic version of the California dream.   He wants a happy ending and concedes that he would have never believed 20 years previously that the future of the labor movement might be on the shoulders of lower waged, home health and home day care workers.

The future of the labor movement, whether anyone likes it or not, might lie precisely in our ability, as argued by Needleman, Bloom, and Narro, to both organize and advocate for just such non-traditional workers as these home based workers, casual laborers, and others.  Who would have imagined that the future of organized labor is with informal workers and new organizing directions that speak to the 21st century and not the great struggles, victories, and defeats of the 20th century?  The many authors of Working for Justice that’s who!

Working for Justice does what we need more books on labor and the labor movement to do:  present ideas, document the cases, and let leaders, members, and organizers see if new models for a new labor movement can be built from the little we now have left as well as the millions standing before us, many of whom work in hybrid jobs in often informal, difficult settings and previously unimaginable situations who desperately need the labor movement.  As Working for Justice points out, it won’t be easy or necessarily successful, and as other books detail, it also will be messy, loud, imperfect, and sometimes heartbreaking, but out of those struggles might just come a new labor movement.  Certainly, that’s worth the fight, and it makes the California story still worth following, even as the fight moves throughout the country and hope springs eternal.

Wade Rathke

Wade Rathke is best known as Founder and Chief Organizer of ACORN from 1970-2008, and continues to serve as Chief Organizer of ACORN International working in 13 countries.

Rathke will be speaking at Youngstown State University on Tuesday, March 20, at 7:30 pm, in the Ohio Room at Kilcawley Center.  For more information on his talk, call the Center for Working-Class Studies, 330-941-2978.

Education, Jobs, and Wages

Most people are surprised when I tell them that only about 30% of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees.  This is especially true of professional middle-class folks who went to high schools where almost everybody went to college immediately after graduation and whose friends now are almost all college graduates.  But it’s also true of people from working-class and poor backgrounds, who seem to think they are “abnormal” or “below average” because they haven’t graduated from college.  They’re not.  They are, in fact, the ones who are “typical.”

It’s even more surprising, however, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26% of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43% required only a high school diploma or equivalent.  And according to the BLS, this isn’t going to change much by 2020, since the overwhelming majority of jobs by then will still require only a high school diploma or less.  What’s more, nearly 3/4ths of “job openings due to growth and replacement needs” over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30% paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars).

Put these two sets of numbers together, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans are over educated for the jobs that we have and are going to have.  It’s hard to imagine why anybody would call us “a knowledge economy.”   It’s also hard to see how “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,” as President Obama famously said in his 2010 State of the Union Address.

I don’t want to say that these statistics on education and jobs expose widely held “myths,” because that word suggests things that are utterly and completely false.  It’s much more complicated than that.  Rather, I’d say that broadly speaking, about one-third of Americans live in one world, while another two-thirds live in a rather different one, but that public discourse – in the mainstream media, for sure, but even more so in elite media and the academy – is conducted by the one-third who are college-educated and have jobs with a fair amount of autonomy and/or a decent income.  This one-third mistakenly takes our world to be typical – or said another way, the educated middle class tends to mistake our part of America for the whole.  And the larger working-class and poor part does not have enough power or voice to consistently make their presence known to us.  That means we are subject to certain uncorrected illusions – mistaking half-truths and quarter-truths for the whole truth — even though we’re the ones who collect and analyze the data.

There is, for example, a large and growing “knowledge economy” in the U.S., requiring more than 6 million people with master’s or doctoral degrees now, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020.  But even with this faster-than-average growth rate, it will be less than 5% of the overall economy.   Even if we expand the definition to include jobs requiring any education beyond high school, the “knowledge economy” – now and a decade from now –will still represent less than one-third of all available jobs.  This is a lot of jobs, about 44 million now, and if you work and live in this one-third, especially in its upper reaches, more education can seem like the answer to everything.  Indeed, according to the BLS, having a bachelor’s degree should yield a person nearly $30,000 a year more in wages than a high school graduate.

But most of the American economy is not like this.  The BLS’s three largest occupational categories by themselves accounted for more than one-third of the workforce in 2010 (49 million jobs), and they will make an outsized contribution to the new jobs projected for 2020.  They are:

  • Office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $30,710)
  • Sales and related occupations ($24,370)
  • Food preparation and serving occupations ($18,770)

Other occupations projected to provide the largest number of new jobs in the next decade include child care workers ($19,300), personal care aides ($19,640), home health aides ($20,560), janitors and cleaners ($22,210), teacher assistants ($23,220), non-construction laborers ($23,460), security guards ($23,920), and construction laborers ($29,280).

There are still construction, mining, production, and transportation and material-moving jobs that provide annual incomes north of $40,000 (especially if they are union).  But even though all these occupations are projected to grow, some by above-average rates, in 2020 there will be fewer of them than there were in 2006 before the Great Recession, 2.3 million fewer according to the BLS.

The BLS produces its job-projection report every two years, and as I pointed out two years ago, it is consistently misreported in the mainstream media or (as this year) ignored all together.  This is partly because the just-the-facts BLS reporting style does not highlight the continuing growth of the low-wage economy.   But read it carefully – or just look at all the tables with an open mind – and I don’t think you can avoid two general conclusions:

  • As an individual, get a bachelor’s degree or you are doomed to work hard for a wage that will not provide a decent standard of living for a family.  You may not get such a wage even with a bachelor’s degree, but without it your chances are slim and getting slimmer.
  • But as a society, “the best anti-poverty program around” cannot possibly be “a first-class education” when more than 2/3rds of our jobs require nothing like that.  The best anti-poverty program around is higher wages for the jobs we actually have and will have.

If we were serious about eliminating poverty or restoring the credibility of the American Dream or simply respecting lifetimes of hard work, we would be debating how to raise wages directly – how to make it easier for workers to organize themselves into unions, how to get the federal minimum wage higher and on a steady inflation-adjusted escalator, whether to require some kind of workers council for all employers, and then legally require that the benefits of productivity growth be shared with workers.  We’d also be discussing how to use a more steeply progressive system of taxation to build a social wage that makes the basics of life – food, housing, mass transit, child care, education, and health care – cheaper for everyone, but most crucially for lower wage workers.

Those of us who have benefitted, financially and otherwise, from getting good educations should tell our stories and try to inspire others with the value of education in all its forms.  But we need to stop fostering illusions that good educations can ever substitute for the organized collective action – in politics, in the workplace, and in the streets – that will be required to reverse the increasingly miserable wages and conditions most people are facing now and in the future.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies