Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tuition Remission? Really?

Over at the Chronicle, Jeff Selingo has a strange little piece calling for getting rid of tuition remission benefits for “faculty brats.”  The argument is twofold: tuition benefits for the children of faculty are regressive, he asserts, since they apply to full-timers but not to adjuncts; and they contribute to a certain blindness on campus to the reality of tuition increases.  In his words, the benefit “smacks of an entitled ivory tower,” and therefore offends a sense of fairness.

To which I say, it’s a case of asking the wrong question.  

Selingo never uses or acknowledges the term, but “employee discounts” are common across many industries.  They aren’t considered elitist or scandalous there.  

Tuition remission is an employee benefit like any other.  In union shops, it’s subject to collective bargaining; elsewhere, it’s a tool management can use to recruit and retain people in lieu of salary increases.  I’ve heard of really elite institutions in which tuition benefits are portable up to the equivalent of the employer’s price; that’s the gold standard.  If you’re at Snooty Private U which charges $50k a year, that benefit should go a long way pretty much anywhere.  At public institutions, the benefit is usually smaller because the tuition is lower.  If your employer charges $15k instead of $50k, the benefit shrinks along with it.  

(Massachusetts has an annoying quirk in its tuition remission.  The state sets tuition, which it hasn’t raised in forever, but colleges set fees.  At this point, “fees” outstrip tuition by factors of five or six across the state.  But the employee benefit only covers the “tuition” part, so the benefit has been essentially frozen for decades, becoming much more like a coupon than a waiver.  It still exists, but it’s much less relevant than it used to be.)

I’ve heard of summer camps that allow employees’ kids to attend for free.  I’ve heard of daycare centers that do the same.  It’s not weird.

Yes, tuition benefits are unevenly distributed.  So are salaries, teaching loads, and prestige.  That’s the industry in which we work.  If you want to argue that, say, basic fairness dictates equal per-student funding across community colleges and flagship universities, I’m right there with you.  
But to attack tuition remission while leaving all of the other inequities intact just seems odd.  

I’ve written before about the two-body problem in higher education.  It’s a real, and rapidly growing, issue that strikes at the heart of work-life balance.  A national market with scarce opportunities for entry -- and even scarcer opportunities for advancement within the role once you’re in -- wreaks havoc on family life.  Tuition remission for dependents may be a bit of a holdover from an earlier time, when faculty were harder to find, but it’s a welcome holdover.  It’s an increasingly rare acknowledgement that people aren’t just, or always, monads.  Some of us have children, and that’s not a lifestyle choice on the same level as, say, flying model airplanes.  

The problem with colleges as employers, or with higher education as an industry, is not that it is excessively family-friendly.  That is not the issue, by a long shot.  

Tuition remission may gradually fade away as the business model of twentieth century higher ed comes under increasing strain.  But I wouldn’t call that progress.  Whatever its origins and its flaws, it’s a rare gesture recognizing that academics are actually three-dimensional people.  Let’s not attack some rare residual decency when there are real problems to solve.