Monday, May 20, 2013

Reading Beyond Headlines

Investigative reporting is great, when it makes the story fit the facts.  It’s a lot less great when it simply ignores facts and tells a story that has nothing to do with them.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting fell into the second category with its story this week, in which it loudly proclaimed that “Massachusetts universities and colleges that say they’re trying to hold down costs have increased their number of administrators three times faster than their number of students.”  

The story goes on at some length to suggest that the primary driver of cost increases for students is administrative bloat, which combines a proliferation of positions with high salaries.  To make the case, it includes a chart showing changes in the number of administrators at colleges throughout Massachusetts from 1987 to 2012, coupled with changes in enrollment over the same period.  It’s sprinkled with quotes from Benjamin Ginsberg, the Goldwater Institute, and Bain Capital.  (Bain’s is particularly choice: ““In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate—executives would lose their jobs,” analysts at the Boston-based financial management firm Bain & Company wrote, in a July white paper, of administrative spending in higher education.”)

It’s a familiar narrative -- even a bit shopworn -- and people who know the catechism can recite it.  The story includes the familiar shots at government employees, such as one would expect from Bain Capital and the Goldwater Institute, In a halfhearted attempt at “balance,” it includes a few quotes from college officials gamely trying to explain that, say, campus IT demands in 1987 simply were not of the order of magnitude that they are now, or that you can’t build dorms and not hire people to run them.  

But then, there’s the chart.  

The chart is where the entire argument falls to pieces.  It’s worth checking.

If the argument of the article -- sorry, the “investigation” -- held water, then we would expect rates of tuition increase to run roughly parallel to rates of administrative increase.  If administrative bloat is what drives costs, then surely colleges with more bloat would have greater increases, and colleges with less bloat would have less.  Hell, the several colleges with administrative shrinkage should have gotten cheaper.

Nope.  Not even close.  That’s probably why the chart doesn’t include costs from 1987 to 2012.  

Just for fun, let’s start with my own institution, Holyoke Community College.  Using the chart’s numbers, from 1987 to 2012, “total administrators” (full and part time) increased by 14 percent.  Over that same period, enrollment increased by 49 percent.  Which means that the number of students per administrator actually increased.  Using the raw numbers on the chart, in 1987 HCC had one administrator for every 73 students.  By 2012, HCC had one administrator for every 96 students.  How that constitutes “bloat” is beyond me.  If the “bloat drives costs” argument were true, then, HCC should be cheaper for students in real terms in 2012 than it was in 1987.

Um, no.

Maybe community colleges are a special case, and I should look at private colleges instead.  (That doesn’t help the “government employee” narrative, but whatever.)  Take Smith College, a well-respected private women’s college just up route 91 in Northampton.  Surely an elite college such as that has lined the pockets of its management!

Again, no.  According to the chart, its administrative ranks have decreased by 37 percent, even as its enrollment grew by 9 percent.  Surely, it must be cheaper now!


Well, maybe it’s a Boston thing.  (We in Western Mass sometimes get overshadowed.)  Let’s look at Northeastern University.  It’s one of the more expensive universities in the state, obviously driven by its negative 76 percent change in the number of administrators.


Look, if you want to do propaganda effectively, don’t include a chart in your own story that discredits your entire narrative.  This is just shooting fish in a barrel.  Alternately, if you actually want to style yourself an investigative reporter, start by investigating your own effing chart.  It’s not that hard.  I did it between innings at a Little League game.  

The simple fact is that the “administrative bloat” hypothesis is badly overblown, when it isn’t entirely fictitious.  That’s how we can have uniform cost increases across an entire industry, even while some colleges’ administrative ranks grow dramatically, some remain flat, and some shrink dramatically.  

The real issues aren’t about fat cat administrators building empires.  (Admittedly, I enjoy the irony of Bain Capital calling out fat cats.)  Cost drivers include Baumol’s cost disease, the rise of IT, various unfunded compliance mandates, and public disinvestment.  Among elite privates, replace “public disinvestment” with “status competition.”  If you want to get a handle on costs, address those.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work; there aren’t as many of us per student as there used to be.