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