Every year, especially around the beginning of another school term, news stories, op-ed pieces, and debates (and hand-wringing) about the rising costs of higher education burgeon in print, online, and on television. This year seems to be producing a bumper crop of such stories. The Marketplace franchise (Marketplace and Marketplace Money on PRI), The Daily Beast, Politico, The New York Times: all have been generating extensive pieces lamenting or debating the costs of higher education (and yes, this list reflects the media I pay attention to, not the total of all the media outlets engaged in this topic). And, of course, politicians are well invested in the game, with the usual complaints and rhetorical flourishes about how tuition costs have risen far above the rate of inflation; how colleges and universities are failing in their attempts to be “leaner” and more “efficient”; how academic programs that are not devoted to “professional” training are bloated, overpriced, and under-performing; how “guarantees” of post-graduate employment are disappearing. All of these arguments are used to justify cuts in state funding for higher education—something we are struggling with as an ongoing problem at my university, but which is also a problem that has become universal for public institutions and private institutions without Ivy League-sized endowments.
It is absolutely true: higher education is a costly enterprise, not just in terms of money, but also in terms of time, energy, and dedication required to achieve a degree. But just how much of the hype about “runaway costs” is true, and how much myth? When you hear a politician or pundit talk about his (and it is usually a he talking) old college days and how he was able to attend university on the cheap, how much does that person actually know about university budgets and the requirements of higher education in the twenty-first century? And how much does that person value the product of higher education?
Myth #1: College Costs Should Not Be Higher (adjusted for inflation) Than They Were in 1980
This is one of the rhetorical flourishes that politicians love to trot out when rationalizing cutting public funding for higher education. What they fail to consider is that the world in 1980 and the world in 2013 are very different in terms of infrastructure, technology, health care costs, and expectations. Moreover, competition over the dwindling number of college-goers is fiercer now than it has ever been, and expectations about facilities for these students have never been higher. So it might be instructive to make some comparisons.
In 1980, there was no such thing as a personal computer, no internet, no email, no wifi, no cell phones, no digital lifestyle. Cable television was a mere decade old. Universities did have computers, but these were enormous machines running magnetic tape and IBM punch-cards, which very few universities used for anything other than highly specialized operations. It would take another decade before the computer trickled down into the middle-class household. Nowadays, universities not only have to ensure that all students have access to super-fast wireless communications, but they also have to employ armies of IT specialists to maintain equipment, and devote millions of dollars annually to the purchase of new hardware and software, to updating licenses, and to expand the digital footprint on campuses. Anyone who thinks that this has not pushed university budgets to the limit is an idiot.
Before the 1980s, health insurance companies that worked with state governments were required to be non-profit, because they were considered to be serving a public function. Beginning in the 1980s—and the deregulation bonanza of the Reagan Administration—health insurance companies began to compete more strenuously and non-profits were encouraged to become for-profit, publically-traded companies. This happened across the country; although some public insurance companies remained non-profit, they still have to compete with the shareholder-dominated companies. One big reason why insurance costs have burgeoned, and why universities and colleges are being strangled by the high cost of healthcare? Because those health-coverage companies are beholden to their investors and their executives rather than designed to provide a service to their customers. And so the cost of insuring college and university personnel and students rises dramatically every year.
When I was an undergraduate, most college dormitories lacked air conditioners and personal telephones, let alone wifi, cable, kitchen facilities, swimming pools, fitness centers, and all the other amenities now advertised by colleges and universities in their attempts to compete with neighboring institutions for a dwindling share of student dollars. When I was an undergraduate, cafeteria food was managed in-house in most cases, not out-sourced to catering companies or fast-food franchises. When I was an undergraduate, a cappuccino was something one purchased in Little Italy, or one consumed while in the “real” Italy. Starbucks—and $5 cups of coffee—did not exist. When I was an undergraduate, the library had books in it, not banks of computers, scanners, and six-figure prices for online digital access to everything. We take all of these amenities for granted—and, according to a recent Marketplace report (and verified by my personal experience with parents comparing living arrangements for their college-bound children), parents’ and students’ expectations about the facilities they will enjoy while at university promote the building and maintaining of high-end luxury accommodations. Anyone who thinks that these kinds of amenities can be achieved at 1970s prices is an idiot.
Myth #2: University Personnel Are Overpaid For What They Do
This is one of the most popular political jabs at universities. Some pundit discovers that an endowed professor in Foucauldian Postcolonial Theory at Midwest State University is pulling a six-figure salary but teaches only one course a year and decides based on that one example that all university personnel are paid exceptionally high salaries. A brief glance at the salary statistics from any year’s Chronicle of Higher Education would disabuse said pundit or politician of that notion, but they cannot be bothered to investigate. In fact, like all middle-class workers, university personnel (with the possible exception of administrators, many of whose salaries have indeed risen above the rate of inflation) have seen their salaries contract against inflation, not expand. My university is a good case in point: In terms of inflation-adjusted salary, I am making LESS now than I did in 2008 when I arrived. The horribly underpaid support staff is even worse off, with salaries that cannot begin to compare to similar jobs in the private sector. The same can be said for departmental budgets, which have contracted significantly in the last decade, but which still have to accommodate not just faculty and staff salaries and benefits, but also infrastructure costs.
Myth #3: Universities Are Not Training Students For the “Real” World
People who claim that the only kind of education that is appropriate is one that is “useful” in some concrete way are the kind of people who believe that critical thinking, effective communication, and just plain old love of learning are unimportant, counter-productive, or even useless. Universities and colleges are experiencing increasing numbers of students in need of remedial work in basic skills, such as reading, writing, and computation. A recent report of this year’s crop of SAT-takers says that 60 percent of students are unprepared to do first-year college level work. Does anyone think that this does not affect the ways in which we teach? Critical thinking, effective communication, inculcating a love of learning: these are indeed real-world goals, ones that we can only hope to achieve. We need people who can assess critically what the pundits are saying on Fox News or MSNBC—or what bloviating politicians are blathering about. And we need people from all social levels, all genders, all political strata in positions of authority and influence, not just the overpaid and hyper-privileged few.
It is a sad fact that higher education is not free for anyone who wants it. It is also a sad fact that government initiatives, such as “No Child Left Behind,” are not improving students’ preparedness for higher education—not surprising when teachers are forced to “teach to the test” rather than educate their students. And it is a sad fact that elected officials seem to consider higher education something unnecessary, unimportant, and dangerous. Maybe that is because truly educated women and men would see them for the naked poseurs they are.
So I ask you: what is more expensive? A well-respected system of higher education that is well funded, well managed, and forward thinking? Or an ignorant, uneducated, unthinking population that views education with hostility and believes whatever the pundit-of-the-week tells them?