Monday, July 18, 2011

Why college is becoming so expensive (IMHO)

I don't know if I've addressed this before on here...I kind of think I wrote a post about it some months ago. But anyway, there's a new book out on what I think might be part of the problem.

I see several issues affecting college costs:

1. Simple inflation
2. Administrative expansion; similarly, expansion in "non-teaching" faculty on some campuses.
3. Parents and students demanding all the "bells and whistles."
4. Increased insurance/liability costs. Increased cost of dealing with mandates.

So, looking at each one of these:

Simple inflation. The price of everything is going up. Granted, college costs are going up faster than inflation (because of the other issues I mentioned above), but it's also important to remember that the cost of electricity is going up (even without the "...will necessarily skyrocket" that may be coming if certain legislation gets passed). The cost of supplies goes up: cost of paper, cost of petri dishes, cost of computer toner. There's really no such thing as a "paperless campus," and if there were, I'm not sure I'd trust it - I would never give an exam online, for example, not even in a room with proctors watching over the students. So we still have to buy STUFF to teach with. And in the sciences, certain chemicals, certain equipment, things like crickets (and now I hear there's a national cricket shortage: great. Which probably means the one crappy pet store in my town won't have them now, and I'll either have to punt on the labs requiring them, or drive the hour's round-trip - on my own dime - to a store that does).

Administrative bloat. This is the issue the book I referred to takes on. Some administration is necessary. Administration that lifts burdens of things like budget-making off faculty shoulders is important. People like Deans who can provide recourse for students who have a problem within departments that the department can't satisfactorily fix are very important. (And likewise: having things like an Academic Affairs Committee where cases of grade challenges, student complaints, and plagiarism that's worthy of expulsion can be heard and dealt with). But, it seems that on a lot of campuses, they've gone into the dean-creating business. It used to be there was a Dean of each school, a Dean of students (or, on some schools in the old days, a Dean of Men and a Dean of Women), and maybe someone in charge of things like budgets and someone in charge of academic affairs.

But now, we have lots and lots of Deans. And lots and lots of vice-presidents. It's rumored here that a certain individual (who is no longer here) was given a vice-presidentship of something to get him out of the classroom, due to student complaints. (Really, even with tenure, there should be ways of dealing with that kind of thing that are better than that). We lost one of our tenured people when he was made a vice-president. (And we haven't gotten that position back: we're down two tenure lines.)

The problem with a bureaucracy is that it may start out with the goal of serving the population it was designed to serve, it often becomes an engine for self-perpetuation. People like their jobs. They like their nice offices. They like the feeling of power. And they want to keep that. And, in many cases, administrators these days don't start out as faculty - so they may not be crystal-clear on what faculty to or where their time goes.

One thing I've seen in the past several years is an increase in tasks that devolve onto the faculty. We're expected to write reports on our volunteer work done in the community, and submit them to the person in charge of civic involvement. We were expected to write a report on how we incorporate "diversity" into our classes (it was not clear if that was a one-time thing, or if we'll have to do it annually). And more and more we're asked to write more reports, to attend more workshops and meetings... and it makes some of us crazy. Some of us are in the classroom up to 18 hours a week, plus 10 hours of mandatory office hours, plus the hours and hours of grading, supervising grad students, advising undergrads, doing that volunteer work...and in a lot of cases the requests-for-information-or-reports come with a very short turnaround time - in some cases, 24 hours. Some of us can't do that!

And of course the administrators all need salaries. And they all need nice offices. And on some campuses - not here, I don't think - a new administrator gets to pick out new office furniture. And that all costs money. And meanwhile, many departments are being told, "Okay, you say your faculty are overloaded. Go hire an adjunct." The problem with adjuncts is...well, you get what you pay for. On a lot of campuses an adjunct makes from $8,000 - $15,000 a year. We're having to hire an adjunct for the fall - we're down two tenure positions from our past high, and we lost an instructor this spring. We tried to get an adjunct - had a good person in mind - but they couldn't do it, not for what we could offer. So we're re-hiring someone we had in the past who was not that great a teacher, who had some problems dealing with the students - but it's a desperation move. The only other option is having a faculty member teach 20 hours of credit hours or something, which is frankly untenable, considering that we're now not allowed to hire student workers to grade (because of FERPA concerns).

3. Bells and whistles. Back in the Dark Ages when I was in college, the dorm I lived in (which was a nice old dorm), the walls were painted cinder block, the bathroom was a large shared room down the hall, we weren't allowed to have hot plates in our rooms, the laundry facilities were three ancient washers and a couple of asthmatic dryers in a room off of the entry to the hall.

The new dorms colleges build? Nicer than any apartment I've lived in. Four-person "suites" where everyone gets a private room. Usually they have private bathrooms (I would have appreciated that: when I lived in the dorm one of my hallmates "discovered" sex that fall. It was disconcerting to have to shower knowing that she and her boyfriend were whooping it up in the shower a couple stalls over). Often there are private kitchens and laundry facilities en-suite.

The problem is, these things cost money.

As do fancy new workout facilities, new student unions, fancy new dining areas, computing centers with the latest-and-most-up-to-date stuff, and fancy landscaping. All the stuff that is proudly shown off in campus tours costs money...which raises tuition...which makes people complain.

I understand Rick Perry is promoting the idea of some Texas community/small colleges offering a "$10,000 Bachelor's degree." The thing with that is - the fancy perks, the nice facilities, probably couldn't be an option with that. (And if a school did a two-tiered degree: like "generic" beans and "name-brand" beans in the store - where the "generic" degree students couldn't use the fancy workout facilities or the new computer centers...I can see that leading to problems, resentment, "can't you bend the rules just for meeeeee" and so on, and so forth.)

The problem is, a school that DIDN'T indulge in the bells and whistles might lose students...or would have parents not wanting their kids to go there. It's a hard sell to say things like, "Yeah, we have old cinder-block dorms and the dining hall is kind of a dump...but our tuition is a lot lower." Or at least, from what I've seen of college-seekers, it seems like it would be.

4. Insurance and mandates. The more we are told to do, the more we have to do in these areas, that can potentially drive costs up. Already campuses have to insure against stuff they did not have to worry about in the past. I know we've been pressured to reduce the amount of field-time because of concerns about "what if someone got hurt?" We were also, at one point, told we needed to list ALL possible hazards a student could encounter in field or lab. (Not just the "reasonable" ones that you'd expect someone with half a grain of common sense to recognize as a hazard). When this came up at a faculty meeting - the chair being all "Dont' shoot the messenger, I'm just telling you what was said at the meeting" we came up with things like "asteroid strikes" and "bigfoot abductions" as POSSIBLE hazards in the field...really, if we had to warn against everything, and then (supposedly, this was the idea) if the student decided they could not safely go in the field, we would have to offer an alternate lab. (Yeah, great. I can see half my class opting for the non-field lab, and then where am I?)

And I know the cost of health insurance has gone up. So far, knock on wood, those of us who are single and don't need a lot of coverage, we get covered by the university for no extra cost to us, but I see that changing. I wouldn't be surprised this fall if we were asked to pony up part of our insurance premiums. (I wouldn't be happy about that, but I'd understand).

And there are other compliance costs. Making old buildings ADA compatible. (And I know on some campuses, some older buildings are just being torn down and replaced - because the cost of bringing them up to code is so great). This kind of compatibility is important, don't get me wrong, but a lot of times it seems to be presented as such an URGENT thing - something must be done NOW and so it gets done in a less cost-effective way than it might if different solutions were contemplated. Providing things like specialized listening devices for students with certain disabilities. (I had a situation of this: student was doing poorly in my class, then he came to me and said he had a disability and I HAD to go get training THAT WEEK to be able to deal with it. So I hauled my butt over to Disability Concerns, got the training. The guy never came back to class. So in some cases they may be buying devices that go unused, and doing things like mandating faculty training that goes unused). Mandates for diversity training, for both faculty and students. Things like mandated anti-harassment education for faculty. (This came up in my department- everyone was made to go through it - and to a person, my colleagues had the same response: puzzlement. "I've never felt disrespected or harassed, and I'd hope if I said something that sounded bad, the other person would call me on it so we could straighten it out right away.") But a lot of these things are required by law, and again, it seems they have a terrible urgency - which sometimes means more is spent on them.

Couple the four things I discussed with decreasing state appropriations (if it's a public university), and tuition and fees must needs go up. It's bad, and it hurts the students, and it may keep some people who would benefit from earning a degree away - but I don't see any easy solutions.

1 comment:

Dave R. said...

Hillsdale College in Michigan solves the mandate problem by not accepting any federal money and therefore not being subject to mandates. Somehow Hillsdale runs just fine, year after year after year.