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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Isolating 'Costs' Doesn't Help

An article on college costs shows how complicated it is to only talk about "costs."

May 31, 2017

Public colleges have a funding problem. We could even call it a crisis, because the funding problem translates into a high tuition problem, which begets a student debt problem.

Per student funding for higher ed has declined by 18% nationally on an inflation adjusted basis as compared to pre-recession levels. In Arizona, where the legislature seems dedicated to a program of zeroing-out state funding to higher ed, and Illinois where an ongoing political struggle has left the state budget-less, the declines are over 50%. 

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe colleges have a cost problem and not a funding problem. Jeffrey Selingo, writing at The Washington Post, sidesteps the public funding and revenue aspects of higher education to offer three ideas for colleges to cut “costs.” In this case he doesn’t mean “price” (as in college “costs too much”) but expenses, the amount of money necessary to operate an institution.

Selingo offers three ideas for cutting institutional costs:

1. Using more technology to reduce instructional cost.

2. Ending the “amenities arms race.”

3. Creating a more “flexible” work force by limiting tenure to somewhere between 20 and 30 years, after which faculty will be on year-to-year contracts.

Would the funding problem I perceive disappear if we instead concerned ourselves with costs?


Yes, technology can reduce instructional cost. Selingo touts some savings at Elon achieved through increasing efficiency in classroom use. It’s a relatively paltry sum ($1 million), but of course resource use should be maximized and we should expect some savings.

Additionally, as Slate’s recent series on virtual schools and credit recovery in K-12 education demonstrates, you can use technology in the service of creating diploma mills, but that doesn’t mean actual learning is happening. 

Doing more with less in education is largely a myth, but yes, we could do less in order to save costs, totally possible.

The amenities arms race

Selingo pegs his entire article on the wastefulness of a lazy river as a portion of a planned $25 million athletics facility at University of Central Florida, but it turns out the facility will be funded entirely with private donations. I think lavish athletics facilities speak poorly of institutional priorities, but they are not costs of the kind Selingo is discussing when they are 100% donor funded.

Yes, many institutions are saddled with varieties of construction debt because of outstanding bonds, but while some schools such at the University of California-Berkeley are hamstrung by massive overspending on things like new stadiums, the vast majority of this debt at public institutions is tied not into what we currently think of as amenities, but is instead for things like laboratories and libraries which we tend to think of as “must haves.”

If we decide that libraries and labs are amenities then yes, savings. Of course, the only reason the cost of this debt is so problematic is because of the shrinking state funds for core operations which necessitates increasing amounts of tuition to cover those fixed costs, but I’m trying not to talk about funding or revenue, so let’s put that aside.

Selingo also includes this non-sequitur: “But if Harvard replaced all of its dorms with rooms that were comparable to a jail cell, I doubt students would refuse to go there. Georgia State University tested that theory in 2009, when it opened a new residence hall that was reminiscent of those from a generation ago: double rooms basically twice the size of a twin bed, common bathrooms, and a dining hall.”

Of course, GSU did not actually test the theory of Harvard replacing its dorms with a jail cell because GSU and Harvard are not the same. Harvard is arguably the most prestigious university in the world. GSU is a public institution where more than 95% of its students are in-state and only 18% of them live in campus housing. At Harvard, 99% of its students live on campus

GSU, a regional public in a large city (Atlanta) with limited need for on-campus housing because so many of their students already live in the city, erected cost-effective dorms, which is a sensible thing to do, which is why so many similar schools are already doing it.

That said, Harvard probably could save money this way, though they’d probably lose their top-choice students to Yale and Princeton if they did so.

Flexible faculty work force

In this context, we must first understand that “flexible” really means “fungible” and Selingo is advocating for a system where experienced, higher paid faculty can be replaced with cheaper, less experienced alternatives.

Let me stipulate that increasing the proportion of contingent faculty would reduce instructional costs. Presumably those now post-tenure faculty on year-to-year contracts could see their salaries trimmed (or jobs eliminated) and just like today’s contingent faculty, as these will be people who are supposed to be in the prime years (age 50-60) of their careers and earning power, many of them would take what’s available, even if it's less.

So yes, money saved, at least on paper, though only about 1/3 of current instructional faculty are tenurable, and would therefore be affected by such a change so I don’t think the savings is as large as one might hope. I also think increased turnover likely eats into some of this savings. Additionally, this system would likely eliminate the problems of salary compression, so while we’re getting rid of those highest paid full professors, salaries for associates will likely increase, as the faster pace of new hires will drive up salaries at lower levels. It's also possible that the inherently reduced security of college faculty work will require higher salaries from the get go in order to attract people to the field to begin with.


The more I think about “cost” in isolation, the more I believe it makes no sense to look at cost independent of funding, revenue, affordability, and of course, institutional mission. 

What you spend money on (costs) is driven by the things your institution must do. Sure, we could say it’s wise to end the amenities arms race (to the extent it still exists), except what about schools that attract students because of their amenities? They’ve cut costs, but if all your students have disappeared, you’re no longer a viable institution.

Different institutions will have different needs.

For all I know, Harvard is terribly inefficient at controlling costs, but it doesn’t matter because they have a $37 billion endowment and an inexhaustible supply of people who would sell a kidney for a chance to attend.

A regional public institution, on the other hand, often relies on enrolling students who live close by. Georgia State has the advantage of being in a major urban area. Delta State, on the other hand, is more than two hours from Memphis as its closest city. Cost cutting moves at one may be disastrous for another. A school that relies on close faculty contact with students can't convert to a MOOC-driven vision because that likely means the end of that school.

Selingo does not mention sports as a significant cost that could be cut, but intercollegiate athletics carries more than a $10 billion tab. Only around 10% of programs exist without institutional subsidies, many of which exceed 10’s of millions of dollars.

Is sports an amenity or a necessity? Would, for example, James Madison benefit more from dropping sports and no longer needing the better than $30 million subsidy that comes directly from student tuition? Maybe they’d attract more students because their tuition just went down 10%. On the other hand, maybe they couldn’t fill their classrooms once they eliminate sports as part of the school experience. 

Which school wants to volunteer for that test?

Sure, we should talk about costs, but it can’t be done in isolation. For example, it would be great if schools like the University of South Carolina didn’t need 20 recruiters in order to draw out-of-state students to campus.

But because the state of South Carolina has seen a better than 30% drop in per student funding since the recession, USC must make up for that lost revenue with more out-of-state tuition, which means more marketing costs, more recruiters, more competing. USC could fill the school with in-state students in a heartbeat, and in doing so would reduce the costs of recruiting and marketing.

Too bad they can’t afford to do it because of the lost revenue from those out-of-state students.

Let’s have the discussion, but let’s do it at the state and institutional level, and let's take all necessary factors into consideration and recognize that there is great diversity in the higher ed landscape.


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