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So the interwebs were abuzz this weekend with discussions of an editorial in the Washington Post arguing that professors are vastly overpaid relative to their work, and that their relative laziness is a primary driver of the higher ed cost spiral.

The usual suspects responded with the usual flurry of attacks. Several pointed out that the Post is owned by the Kaplan company, which also owns a host of for-profit colleges. Predictably, there were plenty of “not me!” statements, assertions of superhuman workweeks, and ritualistic denunciations of “administrative” costs.  

As is usually the case in straw man conflicts, neither side really got to the heart of the matter. The op-ed completely whiffed on causality, and the major objections whiffed on relevance.

The op-ed purported to condemn academic labor costs, yet it never mentioned adjuncts. That’s a remarkable omission, especially at the two-year level.  And while it addressed salaries -- which have gone up in the low single digits annually at best for a long time -- it never mentioned benefits, the costs of which have gone up far faster. (As long as that’s true, the gravitational pull towards adjuncts will be hard to fight.)  

It also took a number of stupidly cheap shots. Measuring faculty workload solely in terms of classroom time is like measuring athletes’ workload based on how long the event takes. By that measure, sprinters are the laziest people on earth -- they work only seconds per day!  The idea that a 5/5 load equates to a fifteen hour workweek is true only if you assume no preparation or grading.  (Having taught that load myself, I can attest that the assertion is pure crap.)  If there’s a real issue here, it’s the mismatch between what’s good for the organization and what it chooses to reward. Because in the system we have, there’s often very little incentive for the professor to do more than the bare minimum.  Many do, to their personal credit, but those that don’t, don’t really face consequences for it.  

Which begins to get at the actual issue. The higher ed cost spiral has outpaced inflation at every level of higher ed, in every institutional type, in every region of the country, for decades.  To attribute that to personal failings is preposterous by definition. Clearly, the cost issue is structural.

Some have claimed that "administrative blot" is the heart of the problem. (This tends to be the favorite whipping boy on the interwebs.) Never mind that this assertion has been empirically discredited, or that the “supervisory” ranks in colleges have shrunk even faster than the full-time faculty ranks. The only actual growth has been in IT, services for students with disabilities, and financial aid. Firebrands are invited to explain which of those they’d cut.

Although I find the “administrative bloat” canard both offensive and tiresome, the real problems with it are twofold. First, it’s simply false. (I like to think that matters.) Second, it’s politically tone-deaf. College administrations are the people whose job it is to manage college budgets. Painting administrations as bloated and incompetent will push legislators in exactly one direction: cutting budgets.  Would you entrust growing sums to people who don’t know what they’re doing?  If we want to encourage more generous appropriations -- which I’d think we would -- the first thing to do is stop disparaging the folks who would manage the money. That’s Politics 101, and I’m still amazed at the number of intelligent people who don’t see it.

So if the real issue behind the cost spiral isn’t faculty laziness or administrative bloat, what is it? Is it climbing walls? (Most cc’s, mine included, don’t have them.) Is it football? (Ditto.) Lavish dorms? (Ditto again.)  

Is it financial aid? Has financial aid loosened the sense of fiscal responsibility on college campuses?

That has a certain first-blush appeal to it, but it flunks the comparison test.  The health care cost spiral hasn’t been hampered by over fifty million Americans lacking health insurance.  Remarkably, the veterinary health care cost spiral has been similar, despite the almost entire absence of pet insurance.  (It’s also hard not to notice that single-payer health care systems have much lower costs overall, which is the opposite of what the “external payer hurts discipline” theory would predict.)  The “Pell is the Problem” theory also completely fails to explain the rise of private lending, which covers the increasing amounts that subsidized aid won’t.  

So no, that’s not it. I’ll boil it down to two.

The first, which is easy to explain, is cuts in public appropriations. My own college gets about five million per year less from the state than it got four years ago.  (That’s over ten percent of its total budget.) That’s before adjusting for inflation. In many other states, it’s considerably worse.  You simply cannot remove that much money that quickly without consequences.

The only problem with this theory is that while it’s unassailable in explaining the last few years, it isn’t as strong in explaining the preceding decades. Yes, the recent fiscal sinkhole matters, but tuition went up fast during better years, too.

The longer-term issue is productivity. And no, that’s not a euphemism for “you’re too lazy.” It’s simply to say that if you continue to measure learning in units of time, and those units don’t change, then your productivity increases will forever be zero, by definition. When the rest of the economy grows a few percent per year for decades, the gap compounds. It’s called “Baumol’s cost disease,” and it’s endemic to education and health care. And that’s true whether the professors or doctors are lazy, conscientious, or even heroic. It’s not about them.

I have to admit being of divided mind on this one. Long-term, I’m convinced that the only way to break the spiral is to break free of time-bound measures. The credit hour must die. But in the short term, no amount of innovation is likely until we get sustainable operating budgets on the political side and some room to move on the legal side. As long as we’re stuck fighting rearguard battles externally -- and dodging circular firing squads internally -- we’ll continue down the path we’re on.  

That’s a lot harder than pointing at some lazy professor and laughing, or pointing at some insipid op-ed and sneering. It requires a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the core of what we do. That’s not sexy, or easy, or fast, or cheap.  But unlike shooting fish in a barrel, it’s actually worth doing.

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