Tuesday, July 16, 2013



In grad school I had a professor who styled himself a sort of Kantian, but with New York attitude.  Whenever anyone started spouting then-fashionable postmodernism, he’d bark at them “what are your categories?”  It soon became a running joke among some of the grad students.  (“Guinness or Bass?”  “What are your categories?”  “F--- you.”)

I thought of him yesterday, driving back from helping my Mom recuperate from surgery.  Since I had plenty of car time, I caught up on my podcasts, one of which was the episode of the Diane Rehm show that discussed the cost of college tuition. (The guests were Kevin Carey, Kim Clark, Terry Hartle, and Brian Rosenberg.)  Within about ten minutes, I was channeling my old professor, screaming at the podcast about categories.

The discussion was actually relatively good, as mass media discussions go, which made it all the more frustrating.  Even in a comparatively slow and deliberate setting, in which everyone was reasonably bright, the discussion quickly devolved into a confused, hopeless mess.  It’s little wonder that the public at large, and many political leaders, have no idea what to think.

Some suggestions for anyone who wants to engage a serious conversation about higher ed costs:

- Are you talking about public, private non-profit, or for-profit?   Lumping the three together only serves to mystify.  

- Are you talking about flagship universities, regional universities, liberal arts colleges, or community colleges?  Hint: if you refer to football coaches, resort-like dorms, or million-dollar presidents, you aren’t talking about community colleges.

- Do you understand _why_ the higher ed sector largely experiences technology as a cost center?  Hint: it’s because we have to teach it.  Higher ed and health care both experience technology as a cost center.

- Is the anxiety about costs really anxiety about jobs after graduation?  If it is, then the real issue is the economy.  When the job market for new entrants is healthy, student loans are easier to pay.

- Do you know the difference between what a college charges and what it spends?  (Hint: among publics, long-term disinvestment has driven up charges much more quickly than spending.)  

- For that matter, do you know the difference between sticker price and actual cost?

- When you hear about “administrative” costs, ask for a definition.  The real growth hasn’t been among supervisory people; it has been in IT, with some in services for students with disabilities and financial aid.  If you still want to condemn costs, specify which of those you would cut.

- On a more philosophical level, what do you see as the purpose of colleges?  It’s harder to make “tough choices” when you have multiple missions.  Publics, and especially community colleges, are often tasked with multiple missions at the same time, and those missions can bump into each other.

- Finally, and for extra credit, do you know what Baumol’s cost disease is?  

I don’t mean for any or all of these to shut down the discussion; if anything, I’d like to see them inform it.  But in the absence of these basics, the discussion quickly becomes vapid and mystifying, leaving people to default to the stereotypes with which they began.  Higher education is too important to sacrifice to shorthand and slogans.  As much as it pains me to acknowledge my old professor, he had a point; without categories, we have no way to distinguish good arguments from silly ones.

Oh. I agree with you about definitions and categories. Nothing is so frustrating to me than hearing generalizations with no definitions.
Ever see "Around the Horn" on ESPN, where they have a mute button when one of the commentary contestants goes off topic? You and your former classmates would make great political referees with a Category Error" button!

But you are guilty yourself.

"The real growth hasn’t been among supervisory people; it has been in IT, with some in services for students with disabilities and financial aid."

At CCs, yes, but not at large research universities where the staff-student ratio is "better" than the faculty-student ratio. I know one where they have been buying up bankrupt office buildings to house the admin overflow.

Even my CC has added a number of on-line ed experts who never teach and are thus part of admin overhead.
I'd add to the admin costs the people who do all the accountability reporting - every time a report is asked for, someone has to generate it. Everything from learning outcomes to financial aid to environmental health and safety. Everyone should go back and read Trollope's The Warden to be reminded of unintended negative consequences...
Speaking of categories, I've become a little skeptical of the "long term disinvestment" meme, primarily because it's hard for me to find any real numbers.

Have states cut back the amount of money that they provide to post-secondary schools in real terms (over say 20 or 30 years)?

Or is it that the massively increasing cost of post-secondary institutions leads to a situation where the state's share of post-secondary schools decreases as a percentage even as the contributions increase in real terms?

From the point of view of the colleges themselves this may not make much of a difference, but as a voter wanting generally to support education it does. I.e., if my state is decreasing its support to education by some large amount, I'd like to work at increasing it. On the other hand, if the state is increasing support of higher ed by, say 2 or 3% a year, long term, but it looks like disinvestment because the costs of higher ed are going up 8% per year, long term...well, I'm not sure that the legislature should be expected to be able to increase funding as some multiple of the inflation rate over a 20 or 30 year period.

The answers to PeterW's questions are Yes and Yes for one particular R1 that I looked at in a blog article written (OMG) five years and 3 days ago. Look about halfway into the article for the data.

It shows state appropriations and tuition, both corrected for inflation. State contributions fell steadily even during comparatively good times, while tuition rose much MUCH faster than was needed to make up for the lost revenue from the legislature.

I know that the state contribution has declined somewhat since then (the data are from before the 2008 real estate Depression) but have not bothered to do the work to dig out more. IMHO that is what folks like Kevin Carey are supposed to do in their day job. It is possible to get relevant data from the ancient past, but the hardest task is cleanly separating how much of a state appropriation is actually designated for something other than instruction, not to mention how much of the tuition is designated for instruction.
There are, in fact, plenty of community colleges with football programs. There are also quite a few community colleges with on-campus housing. The US is a very large country; not everywhere is like Boston.
PeterW, yes, disinvestment is happening, and at an alarming speed. In my state (MI), state appropriations for public higher ed included a 15% cut in absolute dollar terms in 2012, which followed a cut of 2.8% in 2011.

According to this analysis, my state has cut spending on public higher ed by about 1/3 from 2008-2012, in real dollar terms.


This year we're getting an "increase" of a little over 2 percent, but against that baseline, it doesn't feel like one.

For all that there are inefficiencies and other valid concerns, I ask you: even in the private sector, what industry can survive cuts of 30% or more in a pretty short time frame, and expect to thrive? These kinds of cuts manufacture a "crisis" in higher ed, or at a minimum, they severely exacerbate underlying concerns.

CCPhysicist - Thanks, that's exactly the kind of thing I was looking for.

Anon 6:09 - Having good data is useful, but I'm more interested in long term trends: I know that support for everything from education to unemployment has declined since the "great recession".

Dean Dad: For some reason, my work computer software nanny has started blocking this blog, and I'm not sure why. My current theory is that it expects a blog with "Confessions" in the title to be "racier."

Mother Rehm is what you get when you combine an IQ of 20 with a desperate desire to be one of the VSP.
Peter W (and Anonymous):

The flaw in my analysis is that there are only two data points, so there is no information about whether the change was gradual or recent or whether, for that particular institution, increasing status played a role. I wish some of the higher ed research folks like Kevin Carey would dig into publicly available data (even for a single institution) and see what happened in 5 year steps.

It is also the case that the data end before the big effects of the Depression hit higher ed. (The ARRA provided publicly invisible artificial support for two years.) I know that many colleges and universities in my state are operating with less money per student, state plus tuition, than they were a decade ago. The bubble that led to the Depression starting in late 2007 increased resources such as home equity loans that could be used to increase demand for a higher quality (more expensive) school.

It might be that most of the aughts were an anomaly.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?