Why is College So Expensive? (Nearly) Everyone is to Blame

“Why is college so expensive?” “Why does college cost so much?” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that type of question, I could probably pay the roughly $15,000 it takes to provide a year of college for the typical student at a four-year regional public university. This is the true cost of college—how much the college spends on a given student each year. The public is often more concerned with the price (what students and their families pay), but barring additional massive public spending on higher education, the cost of providing a college education must be brought under control in order for students to see lower price tags.

Any piece written by a member of the higher education community for the general public about college costs is likely to reach a large audience due to deep public concerns about college affordability. A recent piece in the Washington Post by Steven Pearlstein, former journalist and current professor at George Mason University, offers four potential solutions to bending the college cost curve. Below, I discuss each of his four ideas and whether they are feasible. (Note that because the focus is on reducing the cost of educating a student, state funding and additional financial aid aren’t relevant here—although they would reduce the price faced by students.)

Proposal #1: Cap administrative costs. This one seems like a no-brainer; if the goal is to educate students, more money should be spent on instruction compared to various “deanlets” and other administrators. But there are legitimate reasons for additional administrators. First, as Pearlstein notes, increasingly complex government regulations, such as for how financial aid is disbursed, do need specialized individuals. As the college-going population has become more diverse, at least some additional student services are required to serve a student body with different academic and social needs than decades ago.

However, the blame for rising administrative costs can also be shared among students and faculty in addition to administrators and regulators. Some students’ preferences for intercollegiate athletics and recreation facilities (such the infamous climbing walls and lazy rivers) also require a number of additional staff members and administrators to run these endeavors. Additionally, as Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute noted last week, even student protesters’ demands for additional services at places such as the University of Missouri and Yale could increase total costs. Faculty are also to blame—each time we give up a former part of our jobs (such as advising students, making admissions decisions, or even making copies), someone else does it.

Proposal #2: Use a year-round teaching schedule, five days per week. It’s really hard to argue that college facilities are being used in an efficient manner. Fridays tend to be ghost towns at many colleges, although many less-selective colleges do hold quite a few evening and weekend classes. But residential students tend not to like Friday classes, and faculty with demanding travel schedules also prefer to keep Fridays free for travel. I teach Monday and Wednesday evenings, and I’ll use about half of the Fridays in a given semester to go to meetings and conferences. Technology has the ability to help solve this problem through the use of hybrid classes. Faculty can teach online a few weeks each semester while they are traveling, something which I do on occasion as well as when the weather is bad.

Moving to a year-round teaching schedule, however, is likely to have significant budgetary implications. Most faculty with teaching obligations are on a 9-month or 10-month contract, meaning that they are not expected to work with students during the summer period—let alone teach. Asking faculty to teach in the summer would likely result in contracts needing to be 11 or 12 months per year, which would probably mean increased salaries. After all, if teaching is added to a professor’s schedule in the summer, she probably won’t work for free.

Proposal #3: Teach more and research less. Pearlstein notes that much research is never cited by any other academics, as well as noting that the incentive structure often favors research (which is far easier to quantify than teaching). The blame for the focus on research can be placed on both administrators and faculty, as both groups often prefer research over teaching and may both have input into the tenure and promotion process.

However, Pearlstein’s mention of research showing that “teaching loads at research universities have declined almost 50 percent in the past 30 years” is incorrect. That study, which used the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, was rescinded in 2013 due to concerns about the wording of faculty workload questions changing during the length of the study. While it’s probably the case that faculty teaching loads at more selective institutions have declined somewhat, Pearlstein shouldn’t have used a study that was rescinded a month after it was released.

Proposal #4: Cheaper, better general education. In this section, Pearlstein pushes for more online and hybrid courses to better engage students in the material. This sounds good, but it is far from a certainty that online courses are actually less expensive than in-person courses. (Research on this is nascent and inconclusive.) Additionally, Pearlstein cites government data stating that “more than three-quarters of students at four-year colleges and universities have never taken an online or hybrid course.” As Russ Poulin at WCET notes, 27% of students took a distance education course in 2013 alone, meaning that the percentage of students with some online experience at some point in college is likely far larger than 25%. I’ll be the first to admit that general education is not my strong point as a member of the graduate faculty, but there are lots of good people working on issues of general education.

As the discussion above suggests, nearly everyone (except woefully underpaid adjuncts) is to blame for the rising costs—and prices—of a college education. The challenge is that any solution is likely to be fairly complex and involve negotiations among faculty, administrators, students, and taxpayers. This is why college costs tend to get lip service from the higher education community until revenue sources dry up. But the financial struggles of many small private colleges (let alone many cash-strapped public colleges) make cost-cutting measures necessary, and hopefully the rest of the higher education community can learn from their experiences.

Will Recent Protests Affect Higher Education Leadership?

Over the last week, much attention in the higher education world has turned to the saga of University of Missouri-Columbia graduate student Jonathan Butler, who engaged in a hunger strike in an effort to get Missouri’s system president Timothy Wolfe to resign due to a perceived lack of attention paid to racism on at the Columbia campus. His effort quickly gained attention via social media, particularly when Mizzou’s football team decided over the weekend not to play any more games until Wolfe was removed. Wolfe resigned today in the face of overwhelming pressure (including from Republican legislators), handing the protesters a huge win.

Wolfe’s speedy resignation clearly shows both the power of social media and the power of big-time college athletics. For example, Wolfe’s $459,000 salary was far less than the $1 million Mizzou would have had to pay Brigham Young University for cancelling the game, not to mention additional revenues Mizzou would have gained from a lucrative neutral-site game in Kansas City. It’s truly remarkable that arguably the two most influential college football programs of the decade are Northwestern (for its players’ attempt to unionize in recent years) and Mizzou—programs that have combined for zero conference championships since 2001.

But the Mizzou protests may have significant implications for higher education leadership going forward. New university or system presidents are being protested in Iowa and North Carolina, and Mizzou doesn’t seem that atypical among large universities in concerns about racism and leadership. Below are three main ways in which the leadership of colleges and systems may change as a result of these recent protests:


(1) Will the voices of students, faculty, staff, and the public in the presidential selection process change? One way to potentially avoid protests like in Missouri, Iowa, and North Carolina would be to give stakeholders a larger voice in the selection process of new leaders. These stakeholders often have a representative on the selection committee, but these committees are increasingly shielded from public view in order to keep candidates’ identities anonymous for as long as possible. Groups who are unhappy with current leadership may seek representation on the selection committees, which could improve the perceived legitimacy of presidential searches but result in a longer timeline for selecting new leaders.

(2) Will this change who is willing to become a college or system president? Much has been made about the protests in Iowa and North Carolina being due to the selection of non-academics as leaders, and Wolfe had no background in higher education prior to his selection. This sounds like an opportunity for academics to regain their traditional position as college presidents, but I have to wonder if your garden-variety distinguished professor is willing to take on such a high-pressure public role in light of additional protests and demands. (In addition, managing an athletic department might have just gotten more challenging.)

(3) Will future presidents demand financial protection against the risk of ouster? The typical tenure of a college president has fallen from 8.5 years in 2006 to 7 years in 2012 amid pressures from trustees, legislators, donors, and internal stakeholders. If the result of Wolfe’s ouster is additional resignation demands at other colleges, I would expect to see larger buyout packages placed into future presidents’ contracts in order to insulate leaders from the threat of losing their jobs. College football provides some good examples here, as a number of head coaches are being paid millions of dollars to simply go away.

Although it is too early to tell whether protests at other colleges will result in leaders resigning or being forced out, the potential seems to be there if stakeholders coordinate their actions around a popular cause. But these conditions have existed at many colleges for decades, so it’s unclear whether Mizzou’s successful protests are a one-time success for protesters or a start of more ousters.