One Reason Why College Is So Expensive

There’s a longstanding debate in the United States about how expensive college has become, and what to do about it.  Some people say we need to get over the notion that every young person needs to go to college, and recognize that learning a trade that is always going to be needed is a perfectly fine way to live a happy, productive life.  Others argue that we need to make college loans more available, and at better terms, and still others say that students loans are a long-term trap for the borrowers and therefore the federal government should pay for college.

Curiously, there’s not much of an outcry for colleges and universities to actually take steps to cut their costs and, as a result, cut their tuition.  And while there are some low-cost alternatives, in the form of community colleges, traditional economics don’t seem to apply to the college decision-making process.  Low-cost competitors don’t restrain the pricing of tuition at more prestigious institutions, because there is always a gaggle of parents, and students, willing to pay exorbitant amounts to go to Harvard, or Stanford, and acquire the diploma from an eminent school.

stanford-university-696x391Could colleges and universities cut costs and offer lower tuitions?  A recent article about the school bureaucracy at Stanford points to one way it could be done.   The article describes the explosive growth in the administrative apparatus at the school and cites some interesting statistics:

“Expenditures for non-academic administrative and professional employees have doubled at US colleges in the past 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students and faculty. According to the Department of Education, administrative positions have grown by 60% between 1993 and 2009, ten times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions. Private schools are more guilty than their public school contemporaries; there are now 2.5 non-academic employees for every full-time tenure-track faculty member at private institutions, which exceeds the 2:1 ratio at public universities. A proliferation of associates and assistants, marketers and managers, now outnumber faculty and TAs.”

Why has the number of administrative employees at colleges doubled, and what do all of these people do?  Were you aware that, at Stanford, there is an “Office of Alcohol and Policy Education” that has its own associate dean, assistant director, operations manager, and assistant dean?  Or a Students & Activities Leadership area that is supposed to “help students find community and foster passions” that has four professional staff members?  And the growing college bureaucracy not only contributes to the spiraling cost of an education; the article linked above argues that the administrative state at Stanford not only consumes resources and money, but also “strangles student culture” and harms the education students receive.

When I went to school at Ohio State in the ’70s, the administrative part of the University was small, and many of the positions and offices described in the article about Stanford didn’t exist.  And, not coincidentally, tuition was very reasonable.  And while some new positions are logical and appropriate, such as those that seek to enhance diversity and inclusion on campus, the need for other additions is highly debatable.  When I was in college, we didn’t need school administrators to help us “foster passions” or “find community,” we somehow managed to do it ourselves.  And maybe it would be better for students, and a more fitting preparation for the real world, if students had to muddle through themselves without having an army of officious administrators dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.

Are there school trustees, or college presidents, out there who are willing to tackle cutting bloated administrative budgets, eliminating nonessential positions, and making the cost of an education more affordable?  We may find out only of students and parents decide to stop writing blank checks when it comes to tuition.