So why is my college tuition so high? Or why learning no longer seems like the primary goal of colleges and universities


This is the season. It’s the time when high school seniors are waiting to hear from colleges regarding whether they have been accepted. But once the joy or disappointment sets in after acceptance or rejection letters have been mailed, another set of emotions and questions kick in for students and parents who ask: “How do we know we made the right choice to get a good education and how will we pay for college?

The simple answer is don’t look to my salary or my colleagues for the reason why college is so expensive. Instead, one needs to understand how higher education has changed in last generation or so to realize that getting a good education is barely the major purpose or goal of colleges and universities anymore and that the real drivers of educational costs are factors that take us way beyond the classroom.

A recent report by the Delta Cost Project entitled Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive?: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education highlights how the changing structure and employment patterns of American colleges and universities really de-emphasize classroom learning. In that report what we find is that over the last decade colleges are experiencing a bloat in hiring of non-teaching staff. For the most part schools are employing more and more administrators and ancillary staff and less faculty, or at least traditional full time tenured or tenure track faculty. According to the report:

  • The overarching trends show that between 2000 and 2012, the public and private nonprofit higher education workforce grew by 28 percent, more than 50 percent faster than the previous decade.
  • Growth in administrative jobs was widespread across higher education—but creating new professional positions, rather than executive and managerial positions, is what drove the increase.
  • As the ranks of managerial and professional administrative workers grew, the number of faculty and staff per administrator continued to decline. The average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by roughly 40 percent in most types of four-year colleges and universities between 1990 and 2012, and now averages 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator.

The Delta Cost Project points out that several things are going on in higher education. First, as the Millennial generation has gone off to college these students are trading in their helicopter parents for helicopter schools. Colleges are increasingly providing more services and programs to attract and retain students, especially as the number of eighteen-year-olds are decreasing. Tighter competition for a declining pool of students means schools are spending more and more money to woe and retain students. More lavish dorms, sports, food, bandwidth, gee whiz technology, and campus aesthetics.

Second, colleges and universities are experiencing administrative bloat. As the Delta Report points out, the ratio of faculty to administrator keeps falling and falling, with it now being overall being 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator. Many of these administrators have little or no experience in teaching, often coming from the private sector demanding salaries comparable to what they had there. This shift in administration is different from more than a generation ago where colleges were run by real faculty (who actually taught and published) who rose in ranks.

Third, the amount of money being spent of faculty–especially full time tenured or tenure track–is going down. In efforts to reduce teaching costs more adjuncts are employed on an as-needed basis, or teaching loads are increased. A recent Star Tribune article highlights this trend. Additionally, faculty salaries have more or less been flat for the last decade. While there are many competent adjuncts, often they are overworked, undervalued, and just do not have the same commitment and time to serve students.

The Delta report really highlights a trend in higher education I have been writing about for nearly a decade (corporate university; neo-liberal university). Colleges and universities have lost their purposes. They have become corporate universities. For the corporate university, many decisions, including increasingly those affecting curriculum, are determined by a top-down pyramid style of authority. University administration often composed not of typical academics but those with business or corporate backgrounds had pre-empted many of the decisions faculty used to make. Under a corporate model, the trustees, increasingly composed of more business leaders than before, select, often with minimal input from the faculty, the president who, in turn, again with minimal or no faculty voice, select the deans, department heads, and other administrative personnel. The business of higher education has essentially become that–a business, often with little regard for the quality of education.

So much of what is invested in higher education is completely incidental to learning. Schools spend a ton on learning technologies but there is little evidence that they make much difference in learning outcomes. For the last five years I have edited a journal devoted to public affairs teaching and have yet to find an article or study demonstrating the value of all high tech toys in the classroom.

Such technologies impress parents and students, but they do little more than drive up costs needlessly. Pedagogy should determine what technology is used, instead the opposite is the case.

Additionally, expenses on bandwidth and sports are nice amenities but secondary to what happens in the classroom. Yes support services to help learning are needed–especially for students with disabilities–but it is not clear how necessary these expenses are. I am the first to argue that a good chunk of college is teaching students how to grow up and take responsibility, but it is not clear that higher education is fostering this type of social learning or maturation.

What really encourages learning are well-trained professors who have both the substantive knowledge and teaching skills to work with students. In my 25 years+ of teaching I have largely remained a professor whose most extensive use of technology is a piece of chalk. I assign lots of reading and writing and expect students to do both. I ask tough questions in class, I give students the chance to rewrite assignments, and I set high standards for me and my students. I tell my students if they work hard I will to. I also read, write, and publish, making sure that I stay up to date with my research and that of others. It takes two to tango, and it takes both a hardworking teacher and a hardworking student to foster good learning. This is what colleges and universities need to encourage.

So where are we? Today’s higher education displays all the worst traits of the private sector–top heavy with middle and upper management, expenditures on items not essential or necessary to its core mission, while spending on what really is the core mission and who generates the real value for the school–faculty–is going down. In the private sector, a company run like this would go out of business. Yet colleges do not because they are able to pass the costs on to the customers–students and parents–who know that a college degree is essential to most successful careers.

So as you contemplate why your college tuition or that of your children is so high remember it is not my salary that is doing it.