Sunday, April 05, 2015

Dear New York Times,

Dear New York Times,

I’m writing to apply for a position as editor of your higher education coverage.  Judging by Sunday’s column, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” written by law professor Paul Campos, you need one.  Preferably, one who has actually been in the room when tuition increases have been proposed and discussed.

As with so much of your coverage of higher education, the column is both a failure and a mess, and the two are related.

It’s a mess, to the extent that it refers “public higher education,” “public universities,” and “colleges and universities” interchangeably.  They are not the same thing.  “Public higher education,” for example, includes community colleges, which go entirely unmentioned in the piece.  That’s not a small oversight, given that nearly half of the undergraduate students in America attend one.  Community colleges don’t “cost so much,” nor have they evidenced “administrative bloat,” nor do they have “seven-figure salaries for high-ranking administrators,” unless you could cents.  

However, they have been subjected to the same kind of state disinvestment as their counterparts across the public sector, and they have had to raise tuition and/or fees to help compensate.  In my own state, for example, state appropriations are still below the level they hit in 2001.  Enrollments are higher.  Employees have had (some) raises.  Utility costs are higher.  Do the math.  

Campos makes a gesture towards the math, but then waves it away.  He concedes that “total state appropriations per student are somewhat lower than they were at their peak in 1990,” but goes on to say that it is “disingenuous” to call that a cut, because if the government had doubled the number of military bases since 1990 while spending slightly less per base, we wouldn’t say it had cut funding.

And that’s why you need an editor who actually understands the industry.  Did the number of public colleges in America double since 1990?

No.  It remained almost constant.  But they’re serving far more students, and doing so with much less help per student.  They’ve made up part of the difference through internal austerity: the trend toward adjuncts, say, or the steady erosion of travel funding.  They’ve made up some of the rest through passing it along to students through increased costs.

If Campos were to draw the connection between, say, Baumol’s Cost Disease and price increases, he would have been on much more solid ground.  But like community colleges, Baumol’s Cost Disease is entirely absent from his piece.  I guess it doesn’t fit his preferred narrative of administrative fat cats with seven-figure salaries.  I would invite him to my state to find a single community college administrator here with a seven-figure salary -- just one -- but that would be, as he would put it, disingenuous.  No such person exists.  

I’ve been in the room when fee increases have been discussed, debated, proposed, and approved.  They’re about filling gaps.  If you fail to understand those gaps and where they came from, you will fail to understand the increases.

If you hold institutional operating funding flat or worse, but increase aid to students, then you could predict that institutions would have to raise prices to students to meet increased expenses.  There aren’t that many other places to go.  Philanthropic fundraising is helpful, but it comes with costs of its own, and the money usually comes with strings attached.  It isn’t a dollar-for-dollar substitution for operating budgets.  Grants are great, but they tend to expire, so they don’t work well for permanent employees, and they also come with strings.  And community colleges generally don’t get a level of research funding high enough to live off the “indirects.”  That’s just not how it works.

The piece is so sloppy and shallow that a more cynical sort would think that it got published because it confirmed someone’s preconceived notion.  Some basic journalism would have debunked its argument in short order.  

If you’d like to prevent similar train wrecks in the future, give me a call.  If I’m not available, I’ll be happy to refer you to any of a large number of thoughtful and informed people who would have sent that piece back.  Higher education is important enough to be worth getting right.  Besides, I’m quite affordable; I won’t even ask for seven figures.