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Trite Arguments About University Costs



On November 25, Steven Pearlstein made an argument that is guaranteed to get one’s op-ed accepted in a major newspapers: attacking professors. Basically, he looked at 4 reasons he thinks university costs have skyrocketed and what we can do about it. The first is capping administrative costs, which is largely a good idea although it’s worth noting that we also demand a lot of services from our universities today, including mental health, that add to this. Of course there’s no question that top administrator pay is ridiculous and the growth of vice-deans for this and that is a big problem. So OK, this is mostly but not completely correct.

Then Pearlstein goes off the rails. First he wants universities to be open year-round and stop giving professors their cushy summer vacations. This is stupid on so many levels. First, while he might say that these are buildings that aren’t being used all the time, he neglects to deal with any of the implications of such an argument. First is that professors aren’t on vacation, they are working on the rest of their job descriptions. Second is that a lot of professors are in fact teaching overload classes to make ends meet. That includes tenured and tenure-track professors. Third, it’s entirely unclear that there is a demand to use these buildings for classes, especially at the tuition rates students are forced to pay today. Where does that money come from? Fourth, he assumes that professors will start working 52 week years without an increase in pay, which is not possible to implement. Pretty badly argued.

Third is the more teaching, less research canard. He blithely claims that most research, especially humanities research, is worthless and so professors should be forced to teach more instead. What he fails to realize, as do so many writers on higher education, is that Harvard and Yale are not the norm in higher education. Far, far, far more professors are teaching 4-4 and doing no research at all because they don’t have time (or maybe squeezing a little in) than are teaching 1-0 and publishing a bunch. But these people are never acknowledged by those like Pearlstein who have an axe to grind against higher education. He goes on to quote a couple of random academics about research being worthless, but he doesn’t even bother to try to evaluate these claims in any kind of useful way.

Finally, he provides some nonsense about general education that exists solely in technological futurist fantasyland that has proven to be bad for students over and over again when implemented. Like most people who write about education, it becomes pretty clear that Pearlstein has spent very little time in the classroom of the average college or university.

Luckily, Dan Drezner also has a column in the Washington Post and he used to rip Pearlstein apart.

When politicians and pundits argue in favor of reallocating resources from one college major to another, they’re trying to say that they can pick disciplinary winners and losers better than universities, foundations or the students themselves. There are big risks in making that assumption, especially if you base these selections on “facts” such as welders outearning philosophers that turn out not to be true. And usually such suggestions ignore the simple fact that U.S. research universities outperform every other country in the world. Or as that Bain report acknowledged at the outset:

Few industries in the United States have achieved unquestioned global leadership as consistently and effectively as our higher education system. U.S. colleges and universities are the cornerstone of our economic prosperity and the key to realizing the American dream. Thirty years of growth have confirmed the sector’s leadership and vibrancy — the result of demographic and economic factors combining to lift higher education even higher.

I get that higher education is a ripe target in an election year. And I get that blasting the “higher ed bubble” is popular even if it is not necessarily true. But for once, I’d like critics to concede that this is a far more complex topic than just “costs are out of control.”

It shouldn’t be that tough a thing to admit.

But inevitably, in another month, some other blowhard with an anti-univeristy agenda will publish another tired essay bemoaning professors without understanding what is actually driving costs up and a major newspaper will eat it up.

…See also Hiltzik

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  • Mike G

    He wants universities to be open year-round and stop giving professors their cushy summer vacations.

    On my campus the summer session is almost as busy as the regular year now. A good portion of this is students catching up on overcrowded classes they were not able to get into during the year.

    Administrative bloat is annoying though. My department got reorganized and “corporatized” and now we are larded with more managers and more layers of management, and the entire focus has shifted from customers and rewarding good work to management procedures, meetings, reports and political games.

    • Vance Maverick


      • sonamib

        Well, Mike G did say that his department was corporatized.

  • Its report on the matter reads like a parody of self-interested whining by coddled academics dressed up as concern for the pedagogical and psychological well-being of their students.

    Christ, what an asshole. But I guess it beats addressing the faculty’s concern over what a mandatory summer term would actually mean for students.

    A few universities have taken a shot at running on a 12-month calendar or returning Friday to the workweek, but nationally such ideas have gained little traction.

    Citation very much missing.

    I’ll just say that as a student, I used my cushy summer vacation to work.

    • Philip

      I’ll just say that as a student, I used my cushy summer vacation to work.

      And god knows with the price of school, most people need to.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      As an undergraduate student, I also used my cushy summers to work, as did pretty much 100% of the people I knew. I did spend one summer studying abroad. I think that’s generally regarded as a good use of a summer.

      Now, as a grad student, I use my summers for three things: writing, writing, and writing.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Christ, what an asshole.

      Actually, he sounds just like the type to invite you to join his professional network on LinkedIn.

      • Ronan

        Lee, if you would like to join my professional network on LinkedIn, all you have to do is ask.

    • Murc

      Wait… what? “Returning Friday to the workweek?”

      Are there… colleges that don’t have class on Friday? Because classes running M-W-F for an hour each day was the standard at every college I have personal experience with.

      Although don’t get me wrong, many of us would have loved M-W-Th. But that was never on offer, ever. T-Th for an hour and a half both days, there were a lot of those; every semester there’d be that one exceptionally lucky guy who crammed 15 credit hours into just Tuesday and Thursday and we’d all be very jealous and he’d be very smug.

      Oh, there was also M-T-W-Th for 45 minutes each day. Nobody liked those at all, because of the overhead; all classes have a few minutes at either end where everyone is still settling in or are antsy to get out. You’d just start to sink your teeth into something and it would be time to leave.

      • Manny Kant

        Well, I’ve frequently taught 75 minutes classes on M-W or T-R. I don’t know that I’ve ever taught on a Friday. Certainly, though, there are some classes on Friday. My understanding from standing faculty I know is that department meetings are generally held on Fridays because there’s not so much teaching going on. It’s certainly not a day off for full timers.

        • NonyNony

          A certain giant central Ohio public university switched from MW classes to WF classes. IIRC, this was mostly because of all of the Monday holidays that interfere with class schedules.

          • Manny Kant

            They observe the Monday holidays? I think we get off for Labor Day (except that class almost always starts after Labor Day) and maybe MLK Day (and spring semester almost always starts after MLK Day too). Other schools I’ve been at have observed neither, and I’ve never studied at or worked at a university that gave off for Columbus Day, Veterans Day (which isn’t a Monday holiday, anyway), or President’s Day. And Memorial Day always falls during the summer. So that’s kind of weird.

            • skate

              In my experience public colleges typically take all the federal holidays, plus maybe another one or two like election day or even Lincoln’s birthday. Certainly that was the case when I went to school in Montana and when I worked for Rutgers.

              Private schools not so much. Columbia staff don’t get Columbus Day or Veterans Day.

              • When I was teaching at private schools, I loved working on Labor Day.

      • Philip

        Upper level classes at my undergrad and the 4 adjacent schools were usually 1.5 hours either MW or TTh instead of 1 hour MWF. Although there were quite a few labs than were F because that was when it was easiest to find a big no-course-conflict blocks of time.

      • Translation – Some slacking slacker students are able to arrange their schedules so that they don’t have classes on Friday. But if idle hands are the devil’s plaything, empty classrooms are the devil’s playground. It is up to universities to stop this travesty by [mumble grumble unicorn].

      • djw

        The last two places I worked had MWF as a standard scheduling option, and lots of classes on Fridays. UW did too, but the branch campus in Bothell where I adjuncted a bit was pretty much all M/W or T/TH, with a few extra long once a week F classes.

        But here’s the thing: Why does he think I’m working less if I teach a class for 75 minutes 2X, rather than 50 minutes 3X? (Or back when I was on quarters 125 minutes 2X vs 80 minutes 3X) I’m teaching just as much. Frankly, in my experiences doing the same class on both schedules at Dayton I actually tend to get through more material on a 2X75 schedule than a 3X50 one. I’m going to go out on a limb and say teaching some number of 3 credit courses is going to be about the same amount of work, regardless of which days of the week we happen to do it on. (More, actually, since academic conferences are usually scheduled at the end of the week and weekends, leading to a lot of cancelled Friday classes.) If we wants to say we should teach more courses and conduct less research, whatever its merits that’s at least an argument, perhaps even one that could lead to a reduction in cost. The “Fridays off” thing is a bizarre non-sequitur.

      • JustRuss

        At the state U where I work, one college has traditionally not held classes on Friday: the College of Business. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if that qualifies as irony or not.

  • Linnaeus

    He blithely claims that most research, especially humanities research, is worthless

    When I read claims like this, one of my first questions is to ask where do people like Pearlstein think the subject matter that professors teach comes from?

    The next question is, how do they define “worthless”?

    • Hogan

      Just in time for the annual MLA Convention wave of columnists reading the program, finding papers whose titles they don’t understand, and sneering.

    • rm

      They define “worthless” as “not engineering or business,” in my experience.

  • Emily68

    David Goldstein, a local Seattle blogger, has written that the cost per student at the University of Washington, when controlled for inflation, hasn’t changed in a long, long time. Tuition has skyrocketed, however, because the state contribution to higher education has been cut. If we get the state to start funding higher ed like it did back in the 1960s when college was affordable, (fat chance, I know) that would just about fix the problem.

    • Emily68
    • Michael Cain

      Simply remarking that in my state, when one compares the current GF budget to the GF budget from the 1960s, the two things that jump out are Medicaid and K-12 education, going from near zero to together taking up nearly two-thirds of the budget. Looking at the trends in growth in those two during the 1990s and assuming a political limit to state/local tax rates, it was pretty clear that public higher ed spending was going to get whacked every time there was a recession. My state’s pretty typical.

      I got no answers. The political limits on revenue are quite real, and the two biggest budget items are growing faster than revenues. Higher ed will be the first thing squeezed out, but it won’t be the last.

  • Murc

    First he wants universities to be open year-round and stop giving professors their cushy summer vacations.

    Count me in as another person who thought most universities operated a roust summer semester as well.

    I actually fucking loved the summer semester. The class schedules were actually reasonable, none of this waking up at five a.m bullshit.

    • djw

      It’s pretty standard. Some places have a fairly robust set of course offerings; others far more skeletal. The difference between those two strategies for summer course offerings has less to do with degree of faculty laziness and more to do with, if you can believe it, variable levels student demand. My current employer could start filling our summer schedule with lots of classes, except that they’d lose a lot of money, because they’d have extremely low enrollments.

      • Manny Kant

        What’s the marginal cost of a class for a university? I’ve worked out that for most univeristies I’ve taught at, my pay as an adjunct is covered by the tuition payments of one or two students. The buildings are already there and presumably being air conditioned anyway. I imagine there’s some other marginal costs beyond the cost of paying the instructor, but it doesn’t seem like you’d need too many students before it pays for itself.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          The average VC or President will make at least $500,000 in salary plus substantial benefits. Each of the dozens of worthless VPs will also have six figure salaries and big benefits. That is where all the money goes. It is worse than giving smack to junkie.

          • Manny Kant

            but that’s not a marginal cost of having a summer class with only five students. That’s a fixed cost.

        • djw

          What’s the marginal cost of a class for a university?

          The real answer and the “standard approaches to university accounting” answer may be somewhat different. I’ve been told for a summer course taught by me for the University to break even, I need at least 7 students. Based on raw tuition, the raw summer per-course salary I’ve been quoted would require about 1.6 paying students. (I would make just over 2X the adjunct rate for summer courses, as a tenure track faculty member.) Presumably pieces of that tuition money go to various overhead costs, based on some formula that may or may not approximate actual marginal costs borne.

    • Manny Kant

      Er…the earliest I ever had a class in college was 8 AM, which I could have entirely avoided if I hadn’t been a Freshman who didn’t realize how much an 8 AM class sucks. Did you have like a three hour commute or something?

      • J. Otto Pohl

        I routinely get 7:30 am classes to teach and that means getting up at 5:00 am at the latest if the class is at the Accra City Campus rather than at the Legon campus.

        • Manny Kant

          Yes, but you are in Ghana, which is not particularly relevant to the typical American university experience.

          • Scott Lemieux

            Wait — J. Otto lives in Ghana? I’m surprised he’s never mentioned this before.

            • postmodulator


              But seriously folks, at the giant public central Ohio university mentioned upthread, there were 7:30 am classes for years — I think they did away with them when they switched back to semesters. The students hated them.

              • Lee Rudolph

                For many years, Dan Kan offered his M.I.T. graduate course in algebraic topology at 7 AM.

                That’s not the reason I didn’t take it (though I probably should have), but it very well could have been.

      • Murc

        Er…the earliest I ever had a class in college was 8 AM, which I could have entirely avoided if I hadn’t been a Freshman who didn’t realize how much an 8 AM class sucks. Did you have like a three hour commute or something?

        Two, count’em, TWO capstone courses that started at 7 a.m.

        On the other hand, parking was pretty amazing at that hour.

      • JustRuss

        I went to a large midwestern university in the 80s. Had Spanish at 7 AM for 3 semesters straight. Very participatory, so no snoozing in the back row. The U where I now work, I don’t think there’s any classes before 8:00.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    We just entered Winter vacation today. So far today I have finished proofing a journal article, written two letters of recommendation for PhD programs in the US, and advised a student on his senior honors thesis. The lack of classes makes the work load different. It doesn’t make it dissapear.

  • AMK

    Raise taxes to defray cost at public universities, limit how endowments can be used (ie certain % of profits must be spent on students, classrom education or research) and impose tuition price controls pegged to inflation on all universities that recieve any form of federal funding. We’ll see how long the seven figure administrator salaries and multi-million dollar gyms last.

    • Murc

      And define “federal funding” to include “any student receiving federally subsidized loans.”

      (Really, my fantasy scenario would be for true public post-secondary education, but that’s a bit pie in the sky. Although you never know, its day might be coming.)

      • AMK

        Student loans, indeed. The core problem with education costs is the same as with healthcare costs. The idea that we have a “capitalist” system here is a fantasy. We have kabuki socialism on one end (unlimited public funding, be it through Stafford loans or Medicare/Medicaid) but no price controls on the other end to prevent the service providers from charging unlimited amounts. The result is a sort of competitive piracy: OF COURSE costs are going to spiral out of control.

        Say I run a store, and the town guarantees that the shoppers who come in will always be given enough cash to buy anything upfront….but there are no limits on how much I can charge (the shoppers can’t afford it long term, but that’s not my problem). Pretty soon, even the candy bars at my gold-plated register will cost $300, and I’ll be able to hire a legion of clerks who are paid six figures to massage me while I spend the workday drinking cocktails with the other store owners.

        • postmodulator

          Which sounds pretty similar to my alma mater except that your hypothetical customers at least get a candy bar.

    • Joshua

      What came first, students who compared schools based on stuff like gyms or how close the dorm looked like to the Plaza, or the capitalist management bureaucracy? Because there’s no doubt these days that students are making their decisions based on these amenities. When you need to make your food compare favorably to David Chang, you need to pay the people who deliver that a lot of money.

      And students probably aren’t going to stop comparing based on that stuff. I really wonder if the bureaucracy and amenities would be the first to go.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Might there not be a market for a no frills but much more affordable education? I mean despite the lies told by administration the big buildings and amenitities are not absolutely necessary for educating students and their huge salaries are even less necessary. The only necessary parts of a university are students, faculty, and books. A lecturer with a PhD instructing students under a tree is a better university than lots of fancy buildings and no competent lecturers. So why not just have lecturers, students, a library and then house the students in old style dorm rooms and feed them rice and beans and greens and coffee?

        • Joshua

          Well, community colleges are a thing, as are more modest four year schools in every state too. But there’s a reason why huge state schools and massively expensive private schools continue to get applicants.

          We’re talking about 18 year olds setting out from home for the first time. Colleges sell a new life to prospective students and have for a while now. Going to college is a rite of passage these days. That’s where all these amenities come from.

          This is, of course, a very privileged position – I went to a local commuter school and then transferred to a top state school and the difference in wealth and status couldn’t be more stark – but it’s a position nonetheless.

          • AMK

            18-year old kids don’t have the maturity, foresight, or experience to be making these decisions (I sure as hell did not). Parents need to be parents and smarter consumers. This is why the kind of official value-for-tuition “ratings system” Obama proposed has some merit, though it won’t change the fundamental dynamic on costs without tuition controls.

            And again, the race to build “dorms like the plaza hotel” is to be expected. All the colleges can charge whatever they want, so why not waste money turning the campus into a guilded post-millenial disneyland? It builds the “brand” that attracts more students who can be charged unlimited amounts, which means more luxuries, etc..,

            • Joshua

              Well, yes, that’s my point. These kids are not going into this with an understanding on what is important. But the toothpaste is out of the tube. Students will keep looking for these things.

              It’s self-perpetuating at this point. If budgets tighten, I do not think that the Olympic swimming pools or Everest-like rock walls will be the first to go. I would like to think they will, but I see no reason why they would.

          • DAS

            I teach at one of them modest state schools. We have increasing tuition and we don’t have too many fancy buildings (well we are getting a fancy new building for nursing and we have a nice new science building … but, pace J. Otto, you do need decent facilities to train scientists and nurses).

            Our problems are lower state funding and higher costs. And our primary areas of spending growth are more faculty (even as enrollment is leveling off) and more support staff.

            Why do we need more faculty? Well, in order to ensure that students can schedule their classes while also working (to pay those increased costs, so it’s a vicious cycle) too many hours, we need to keep multiple sections of various courses open in order for students to find a section that fits into their schedule so they can take courses and make progress towards graduation. Personally, I am teaching smaller classes now because of changes in the MCAT: more biochem on the MCAT means more students want to take biochem. But teaching biochem lab properly is extremely demanding. I may only be teaching one section of biochem lecture and two associated biochem labs (which means I only am teaching 30 students), but even with a top notch lab tech, grading 30 lab reports/week, supervising two sections (one with 14 students and one with 16) with each student requiring personal instruction in certain lab techniques … I am completely overwhelmed and am working harder than when I taught biochem lecture, only one section of biochem lab and nursing chem, which had more students

            And that lab tech? She’s a relatively new hire. In order to meet demand for setting up labs, providing support services, keeping campus computers running, etc, over the past ten years our staff has exploded.

            It’s one thing if you are educating high SES, well prepared students in the humanities in lectures that could be held under trees, but trying to take students whose preparation for college is poor, who need a lot of support to navigate the college environment and who have conflicting demands on their time … taking those students and educating them in science and keeping the computational and laboratory infrastructure they are using running? That’s an expensive proposition.

        • Bill Murray

          That’s pretty much how my University competes. School here costs more or less the same as when I went to school 30 years ago. The students did just vote to fund a new recreation center out of future student fees.

          We also don’t have that many of our students here in the summer – lots of High School and Middle School students doing various camps, some locals taking college classes — but not too many of our fall/spring students. About 1/2 to 2/3rds of the students in my department do paid internships in the summer, so mandatory summer school would be a no-go unless they counted this.

      • Orphos

        There is certainly a lot of market … I’m not even sure you can call it “distortion” here. Something fucked up.

        Palatial (ish) dorms, Olympic swimming pools, shaded walkways and parks, climbing walls, etc… they’re pretty amazing-looking, right? And students would rather go to the university that has them. And you have a climbing wall, you need climbing wall staff, and luxury dorms require their own staff, and don’t forget that you’re probably running your own power plant, which has physical plant staff… and that’s before the LGBT student center, the minority and 1st gen student support center, the psychological counseling center, the tutoring center, the high-tech library and cafe with lounge, the student union/center with its projection screens…

        And that’s before you add the research apparatus: the tens or hundreds of low-level admin who track faculty grants to comply with federal regulations, who support faculty grant submissions, who carry out low-level tasks like laboratory management that can’t be done by undergrads but that you also don’t want to employ a post-doc for…

        The number of things universities are doing to ‘compete’ in the higher ed ‘market’ is really quite astonishing when you see them all together on a balance sheet. I don’t know how to cut back on it all, just like I don’t know how to cut back in health care. I think the six nurses who attended my last operation were overkill, but which of them do I want let go first? I’m with Otto (jesus, that’s a first), let’s go back to a teacher and a nice shady tree, but realistically I don’t know the first place to start.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          Yes, for the first time in the history of the internet somebody has agreed with me on something. ;-)

        • Lee Rudolph

          I think the six nurses who attended my last operation were overkill

          Maybe not quite the mot juste.

          Unless there’s something you aren’t telling us about yourself…

      • mpowell

        It’s an interesting question as to which is the first to go. But if you make subsidized federal loans contigent on cost control, something will have to give at the level of state flagships. The federal government should subsidize higher education. They should not subsidize ‘dorms that look like the Plaza’ if they can avoid it.

        If you go down this road, the elite privates will continue to cross-subsidize their middle class with higher tuition on the rich. And ultimately the prestige that attaches to attending the very top schools may become significantly less accessible to the middle class. That is definitely a risk with this route.

  • Brett

    Honestly, you need to impose controls on what they can charge students in tuition and fees, with the intent of turning the public college and university systems into what the public primary and secondary education systems are.

    If states and the federal government are on the hock for this stuff, I guarantee they’ll start economizing on things. Or they’ll try to privatize their public post-secondary education systems, which is unfortunately a very real risk in today’s political climate. One other big downside is that getting them to do better on compliance with needs like mental health assistance, student counseling, sexual violence prevention, etc will be like pulling teeth since they will have to go back to the state government to raise the funding again.

  • JustRuss

    Another cost that needs to be considered: books. I was chatting with a few students the other day, the cheapest book they’d had to buy in college was about $150. That’s about the most expensive book I had to buy when I went to school. Inflation, sure, but students today are routinely spending $200-300 per book, that adds up really fast.

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