Wick Sloane, assessing the annual meeting of the business officers' group, urges them to take responsibility for college costs. Someone has to. Who better?

August 6, 2007

My name is Wick, and I have been a NACUBO member.

The National Association of College and University Business Officers last week nailed at least $4 million to the fall tuition bills going out to strapped families and students this month. NACUBO gathered more than 1,000 higher education business officers and 200-plus vendors at a Mardi Gras in New Orleans.... I mean, an annual meeting, “Crossroads: New Beginnings Built on Valued Traditions.” Those traditions being, for example, free food, an umbrella from Microsoft in the registration bag and a golf tournament with the Beverage Cart sponsored by Higher One, a cash-card company, I think.

I missed the meeting. I toured the meeting Web site, and I wept. I don’t think college in the U.S. will ever be anything but even more expensive. What’s exasperating is that I like the hundreds of NACUBO members I know. These are men and women who are kind, good people. The sum of the parts, though, is a black hole.

I could be at least a million low in my costs, but I rounded down and did not estimate the costs of parties at tony restaurants like Bacco and Bourbon House or the giveaways of iPods and other gadgets in the exhibit hall. Fair’s fair. My $4 million all-in cost for the convention is from the NACUBO meeting Web pages, plus plugging in airfare (coach), hotels and sundries for those attending. Booths and sponsorships based on the information on the web pages come to at least another $1.5 million from vendors, and I assumed the minimum 100 square feet for all vendors, though some were much larger. (Note: Inside Higher Ed was among the exhibitors.) All this money goes back to students via expense accounts and whatever vendors add, from the meeting, to their cost of goods sold. I have no quarrel with business or advertising. This meeting, though, must come off everyone’s budget.


  • Did NACUBO negotiate premiums as high as 58 percent for hotel rooms in New Orleans? I was looking up prices on Web hotel sites, and I scrolled down to the featured hotels on the NACUBO pages. I thought I’d made a mistake – NACUBO prices were higher. How hard can negotiating a deal be in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans? Take a look.
  NACUBO Price Web Price Difference Premium
Hilton $175 $119 $56 47%
Wyndham $169 $109 $60 55%
W New Orleans $169 $107 $62 58%
Marriott $167 $129 $38 29%
  • Any meetings on the big questions? How to put twice as much knowledge into students at half the cost? Not that I found. One quote from the Web, “NACUBO-Your Key to the Higher Education Market -- What's the most effective way to access the $211 billion higher education marketplace? The NACUBO 2007 Annual Meeting is the industry's largest and best attended event for college and university business officers. The business potential it offers you is enormous!”
  • Even NACUBO can’t size this glorious market. Also from the Web: “The NACUBO Annual Meeting offers unparalleled access to administrative decision-makers in the $400 billion higher education market.”
  • How would anyone explain this to a students crushed in credit-card debt? “Relaxation Station Rejuvenate and recharge with an upper body massage. Enjoy a complimentary neck, back, shoulder, arm, or hand massage in the exposition hall during exhibit hours. Sponsored by Bank of America.”
  • Students everywhere paid, too, for a speech by the Freakonomics boys, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. (No lecture price I could find on their agent’s Web page.) I have this fine book right here on my desk. Published in 2005, this has been a bestseller for two years. If this book is news to college and university business officers, I despair.

I have yet to meet anyone who accepts accountability for the ever-rising costs of a higher education. As a society, we’ve never known more about the mind and learning and cognitive science. New knowledge and great need in other fields breed innovation. How about a better way to deliver an education? The four-year bachelor’s degree, the big cost driver in higher education, is a construct from the University of Bologna in the 1400s. The pedagogical constraint was the virtual absence of books. Education required gathering students in a room and the professor reading the book to them. I pitched this idea many times to NACUBO chiefs. Not the answer, but let’s tackle the question. No luck, and costs keep rising, and back interest on student loans compounds.

My anguish arises from my certainty that those who gathered this week in New Orleans are the ones to reinvent higher education at a rational cost. One on one, business officers agree that there are better ways. They say no one has asked them for a solution, or “We must do what the crazy provosts want.” Large meetings with other professions -- investment bankers, hedge fund bosses, lawyers -- leave me certain that the problems will only worsen. These business officers, though, are fine, fine people.

If I had to oversee an overhaul of higher education for the new century -- more learning, lower cost, access for the poor -- I’d take any NACUBO members and be delighted to have them. At any NACUBO meeting I’ve attended, the brainpower and the ability and knowledge of those present has inspired me. That all that brain capital is dormant for the big questions has discouraged me, more than once. Who better to lead than these men and women?

Somewhere is a 12-step program to show business officers the way to delivering what they know is the best higher education system in the world to millions more for millions less.

Perhaps next year at a rehab center? Have a golf tournament. I’ll sponsor the beverage cart, and I’m not selling anything.


Wick Sloane’s column, The Devil’s Workshop, appears as needed. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media to write about community college finance and equity issues.


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