Paul’s Perambulations

September 6, 2009

Why College Costs Rise (comment on NYTimes article)

Filed under: General — admin @ 10:10 pm

I submitted the following Comment to the New York Times in response to their  8/5/09 article Why College Costs Rise, Even in a Recession. I’ve been tenured University faculty for four decades and recently chose to retire (to adjunct status) at age 66. During that time I’ve made the institution (which has better name recognition than Lafayette) a ton of money by typically teaching a four/four load with more than 100 students per semester and I have never had a sabbatical. I would have been better off financially to have skipped graduate school (Princeton Ph.D.) and gone directly to teaching first grade in my children’s elementary school. Do not think this is a complaint about my academic experience. I have lived my life as I felt best and followed my own values, and I believe that I have made significant contributions to my institution.

But I am old school.

Recent hires teach fewer students but are required to publish in prestigious journals. They work their butts off just as much as I do. The work load is heavy and jobs are scarce. But my institution is primarily supported by tuition, and the change to a research focus has not been accompanied by a comparable increase in grant support sufficient to offset the released time from the classroom. And so income has been reduced.

This might be sustainable were it not for the large increase in administrative positions and student support positions.  The latter might be understandable; the former seems highly misdirected. We have administrators and fund raisers coming out our ears, and administration is the fastest growing component of higher education.

Two factors impact on all this. One is the hope that, somehow, the computer and related technical advances will enable increased productivity/effectiveness for faculty working with students. Frankly, this hope seems unrealistic considering that a prime claim of my institution is about the individual attention given to each student. Second, more than ever, a college education now seems to be focused on job training and obtaining a good job after graduation. Money for education is seen as a financial investment, to be repaid by highly profitable employment. That is not the mindset that I encountered when I went into academia many decades ago.

Solutions?  Wish I, or anyone, was sure of an answer. I do think that the rush to be flashier and offer more bells and whistles (when these things can cost a great deal of money) needs to be reined in. My campus is beautiful (at least superficially, some less visible parts are falling down) and I appreciate that, but some of this is unnecessary gloss and not substance. If your institution is basically tuition supported, focus on education and student contacts and hope that you will be recognized for that. Don’t expect student tuition to pay for all the research your faculty are doing. If your institution is basically grant supported, you can focus on research. I’ve been at both types of institutions, and when they followed this principle, they seemed to do all right. The problems started when they did otherwise.

p.s.  Comments #s 25 and 17 raise some interesting issues where I can agree with some aspects and disagree with others. Some folks stay on too long. I retired when I turned 66 to avoid being worked to death – is this good, or not?  This was my first summer off in decades, and so my wife and I were able to hike and backpack a great deal (frankly, we are in excellent shape for our ages). It may be that “old school” ways are too inefficient to be practical nowadays, but I believe that something important is lost otherwise. In my view, the basic survey courses are the core of education and I would be concerned with having less experienced instructors teach them. As a tenured faculty member, I have always made money for my institution while maintaining a modest (by today’s standards) research program. (My last graduate student received his MA in May.)


  1. I also posted the following on the NYTimes Comment site, in response to much criticism of tenure.

    There is much discussion about tenure. It has a special place in academia, and its special place should not be based on job security or protecting poor performance. That is an administrative matter. The administration of tenure can be closely related to whether an institution is unionized or not. If there is a strong union, faculty can misuse tenure. If there is no union, administrators can often safely ignore tenure principles.

    Properly understood and administered, tenure is essential to the academic mission. For this “old school” professor, the academic mission should focus on a truly liberal education, not necessarily job training or research specialization. There are cases on record where administrations were focused to follow the money, respond to pressure from alumni, or pursue political matters (check the AAUP website for confirmatory material), and the academic mission was prostituted to these lesser values. Enforcement by administration can be sporadic and opportunistic. Personally, I am faculty at a conservative school (yes, they do exist), and tenure has at times given me confidence to pursue significant intellectual and moral issues when I might otherwise have hesitated (being also responsible for a family of five) because they did not follow the same path that my institution desired as our public norm. I believe that both my institution and academia are better as a result.

    Comment by admin — September 7, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  2. This ( ) is a stimulating article (despite substantial nonsense and misleading information) that envisions new forms of online alternatives in response to traditional (expensive) higher education. I found it valuable reading. For those who basically want the college equivalent of the high school GED in order to fulfill arbitrary degree requirements for employment, Smith’s system (see article) may indeed be an answer. In those instances, much depends on such a system obtaining accreditation. When all this gets taken to court by online educators seeking legal parity, will we end up with standardized testing of college graduates to satisfy requirements demonstrating that we (Harvard on down) have all met the legal standards of a “college” education? My institution is already focused on “outcomes assessments” and we are correlating this with our offerings.

    There seem to be a number of quite different ideas re what is important about a college education, such as: Prestige (a big and expensive item, often enabled by the big endowments of the prestige schools); College Experience (also expensive due to the handsome ivy-covered buildings, athletic facilities, and a low student/faculty ratio); Job Training A (expensive laboratories or other facilities for a job that actually needs specific on-site training; Job Training B (simply get the union card that says B.A. from whatever source is most convenient). Oh, and don’t forget, The Love of Learning.

    Okay, I am “old school” academic, but it amazes me how much I actually use, or seek to remember, things I learned when I was in school. Of course, my friends, conversations, and range of interests and academic activities may be quite atypical of most folks facing the bills nowadays

    Comment by admin — September 8, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

  3. The whole notion of average salary for those in academics makes little sense; we might as well discuss the significance of the average salary for a lawyer or professional athlete. It’s the differences that are relevant. The starting salary for a new hire in business is twice that of someone in the traditional arts (if the arts are hiring at all). Some areas of academia are broke and faculty struggling along on a shoe string; others areas that are “hot” (generally, applied areas that offer opportunities for the big bucks that pay off those big college expenses) are doing much better. I won’t comment here on the reasonableness or unreasonableness of this.

    Comment by admin — September 8, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

  4. (This is my response to a prior comment about families refusing to pay the costs of elite institutions): Spend less; Make less; Live Better; Support the World. Now we’re getting into some real issues, the sort of thing we imagine being discussed at Universities (if you can afford them). Of course, we’d be accused of being un-American if we actually proposed such things. But then, I’m grateful for tenure.

    Interesting comment re the community service component of higher education. Community service is an important part of higher education (my elite institution excels in this area), but I believe it becomes a superficial experience for many. They’ll do a good day’s work in the soup kitchen but (unless the experience is accompanied by genuine open discussion) will still respond “Don’t mess with my health insurance, you socialist!” on a topic that is conceptually related.

    Comment by admin — September 8, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  5. A friend of mine in the English Department described her semester assignments as follows: I’m teaching Travel Writing (going to Brazil w/students for spring break), Intro to Lit and Reading and Writing about Pop Culture (online). Should be a great semester!

    These courses may be helpful writing experiences, but two of them are definitely not the English courses that I experienced in college. On the other hand, if you don’t teach such courses, you don’t teach.

    Comment by admin — January 10, 2010 @ 10:23 pm

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