So why is college more costly, anyways?

It seems one of the most popular items in the popular literature these days is just what is going on with higher ed.  The Economist ran a special section recently, and (again) the New York Times is running an op-ed piece today. It’s lazy professors! It’s too much research! It’s too many administrators! It’s too many students! Its too many amenities! It’s too little state funding! It’s too much federal funding! Too many expensive labs! Textbooks! Computers! Too many TAs! Too few professors in the classroom! Too many poorly-prepared students!

It’s giving GG a headache.

So, a summary of what might actually provide some insight.  These numbers ought to be out there somewhere, but GG isn’t in the mood to try and dig them out at the moment–maybe somebody has these and can point them out.

First, a good point that NY Times op-ed makes is that there is the total cost of education and then there is the tuition paid by students.  So let’s consider both sides of this.  What we ideally want is a breakdown, by student credit hour taught, of the various costs of a university education.  We’d like to see this at a few specific times in the past. We’d ideally take the total budget of the university, divide it up into categories we are interested in (pay to tenure track faculty, pay to instructors, pay to TAs, pay to administrators, capital costs, student fellowships awarded by the university, maintenance and maybe a couple other categories, and divide by the total number of student credit hours taught that year.  The contention of the Times op-ed is that we’d see the administrative dollars/credit hour go up dramatically over the past 40 or so years. Of course we’d like to see this over a time period when the number of credit hours to graduate stayed the same or nearly so; if it changed a lot, we’d need to adjust accordingly.  And, ideally, we adjust for inflation. Some of these might take some care to extract: deans, for instance, are typically drawn from the faculty and might get lumped in with the teaching faculty. Research moneys are ideally kept separate from the teaching mission, but because of indirect cost recovery charged to the research side and capital costs and summer salary for faculty on the teaching side, there can be crossover that could be trouble.

Obviously you’d really only want to do that within a single university (harder to compare credit hours from place to place). If you picked, say, an Ivy, a stable state research school (e.g., Michigan, Berkeley), an up-and-coming state school, a stable state teaching school, and probably a for-profit school. Maybe you see faculty pay go up per credit hour because faculty are teaching less, maybe you see faculty pay go up because of competition for talent (e.g., the past few years saw some pretty intense offers made for faculty with specialties in oil and gas work because of competition from industry), maybe you see administrative costs go up, etc.  At least you’d now know where to look.

On the other side of the coin, you’d like to see who paid for that education.  This is looking at the income side of the ledger, but with a twist.  While universities report tuition, you really want to know how much of that tuition is from the pockets of the student and his or her family, how much is from external awards, and how much is from loans, and if any is effectively internal (tuition received that was paid by the university itself in the form of an award). Universities also have income from research grants, from their endowment and gifts, from athletic receipts, and from the state (if a public school).  And, again, you’d like to see this on a per credit hour basis as well as the lump sum.

You’d think this has already been done, but nearly everything GG has seen involves using much lumpier metrics that can be skewed by a large number of factors.  Until we really know these numbers, we can’t really diagnose what is really changing in higher ed, and without that diagnosis, attempts to fix things by changing loan terms or faculty pay or something else is fiddling in the dark. So GG hopes somebodyhas these numbers and is acting on them, because if not, then we’re both driving blind and demonstrating that we don’t practice what we preach.


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  1. Costly College Update | The Grumpy Geophysicist - June 17, 2016

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