• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


It Doesn’t Just Seem Harder…

Student budgets and college budgets.


May 14, 2018


A tweet last week caught a bit of fire, so I thought it might be worth revisiting. Last week we had graduation, and we gave a Distinguished Alumnus award to a graduate who has gone on to achieve great things. A professor introduced me to her the day before; she mentioned that when she started in 1978, tuition was $6 per credit. (To be fair, someone on campus suggested that she might have been rounding down…)  I found an inflation calculator online, which converted six dollars in 1978 money to twenty-three dollars now. Our current tuition is $135 per credit.

The national minimum wage in 1978 was $2.35 per hour. At six dollars per credit, and 15 credits per term, you could cover full-time tuition in just over 38 hours of work. Over 15 weeks, that’s about 2 ½ hours per week. Pretty doable, I think. That leaves out fees, books, and living expenses, but it’s a good baseline.

The minimum wage in New Jersey in 2018 is $8.60 per hour. At 135 dollars per credit, and 15 credits per term, you could cover full-time tuition in just over 235 hours of work.  That’s almost 16 hours per week.

It doesn’t just _seem_ harder than it used to be. It actually is. Looking only at tuition and minimum wage, it’s over six times harder.

And that’s before accounting for faster-than-inflation increases in the cost of textbooks and rental housing.  

Robert Kelchen did a quick analysis showing that one of the usual villains in the narrative about tuition -- so-called “administrative bloat” -- is badly overstated, to the extent that it exists at all. The community college sector in particular has been parsimonious, often to a counterproductive level, in parceling out administrative positions. Spending in that area has been flat for years, despite increases in the need for staffing in IT, financial aid, and disability services, among others. That means that the remaining staff is doing more with less.

(A few years ago, I saw a piece that narrowed down so-called “administrative bloat” to the research university sector, and specifically to universities with teaching hospitals attached. That was because every single hospital employee was counted as “administrative.” It’s measurement error.)

We know it’s not primarily a function of inflated faculty salaries, either. A quick comparison of adjunct percentages over the years puts that one to rest quickly.  

As longtime readers know, I believe that Baumol’s Cost Disease is an inexorable factor. That’s true directly, through the educational enterprise measured in seat time, and indirectly, through the cost of health insurance for employees and the institution.  

Health insurance is clearly a driver. But tuition increases don’t only reflect cost increases. They also reflect subsidy decreases, after inflation.

Locally, for example, state aid has been flat - in nominal terms - for twenty years. County aid is actually lower now than it was ten years ago, even before adjusting for inflation.  Cost-shifting from the polity to the students has had a tremendous impact. If you prefer to think in generational terms, you could say that the Boomers who benefitted from heavy tuition subsidies have chosen not to pay it forward to the generations that followed.  If you prefer to think in class terms, the downward distribution of the tax burden has lightened the load remarkably on people who least need the load lightened...

I mention all of this in defense of current students. Millennial-bashing is great sport in some circles, but I can’t help but notice how much harder they’re working than either the Boomers or the X’ers had to. Most of our students work at least 30 hours per week for pay outside of class, often skimming off some of their pay to support their families, rather than the other way around. Our systems and expectations weren’t built for that, but there it is. As a society, we’re eating our young. That is not a sign of health, and it is not sustainable.

In this context, the call for “free community college” can be read as calling for restoring intergenerational justice. It’s an attempt to give current students something approaching the deal that their forerunners got. It’s both a moral cause -- fair is fair -- and a pragmatic one; we will not be able to sustain the productivity increases needed to support all those retirees if we don’t educate the young.  It simply will not happen.

Free tuition, OER, and basic needs support are ways to take some of the economic pressure off, to allow students to be students. I’d love to see more students be able to reduce the hours they have to work for pay and still be able to take care of themselves. The move away from a humane model has been gradual enough to seem inevitable or natural, but it isn’t; it’s a choice. It’s a choice we can make differently.

When the alumna told me what she paid, I laughed and said “wow!”  I’d love to get to a point at which it wouldn’t seem unbelievable.



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