Higher education’s coming crisis | The Triangle

Higher education’s coming crisis

Robert Zaller


A few years ago, walking around an upper-middle class neighborhood in southern California, I noticed that home sale prices were near the seven-figure range. Looking at the houses themselves and imagining the income levels of their occupants, my thought was: This can’t last. It’s unreal.

So it was. The housing market soon crashed. Now, looking at the costs of private higher education, typically in the range of $40,000-$50,000 per year, it seems clear that they, too, have become unsustainable. Like the housing market, the market for higher education — already undercut by online education factories — is headed for collapse. For a long time, both markets were propped up by debt, but that has reached a saturation point in education as it did in housing. Student loans, once mainly confined to pricey medical and law school programs, have now become the largest single source of private indebtedness in the United States. That isn’t just impossible to sustain. It’s an outrage and a disgrace, and it points to a general systemic crisis that transcends the academy. Affordable housing, health care and education are the three prerequisites of a functioning society. At present, we provide none of them to a growing segment of our population.

In each of these areas, costs have been rising in excess of the general inflation rate for decades; in health care and higher education, they still are. When a product costs more on the market, it is supposed to be the result either of a scarcity of supply or a surplus in demand. Neither is the case in academia. The national population is growing only very modestly, and there is no shortage of universities. The principal cost factor in higher education — productive labor — is actually declining. In real dollar terms, my own salary is less than it was when I came to Drexel 25 years ago, and I am sure my situation is not unique among the faculty. But labor costs have been driven down far more radically by the transformation of the academy itself. Whereas a quarter century ago it still consisted largely of tenured faculty, a majority of courses are now taught by a nontenured proletariat whose salaries and benefits (if any) are sharply lower than those of their older and fast-disappearing tenured colleagues, whose classroom workloads are higher and who are, for the most part, subject to dismissal at pleasure. This means, in bureaucratic terms, a cheaper and more disposable workforce. Add to this the proliferation of online courses (particularly popular at Drexel), which require next to no investment in physical plant and support services, and you have a lean and very mean academic delivery system whose costs should be going down, not up.

There is no single explanation for the actual rise in college costs, but there is a single driving force behind them. Lest you distrust me as a source, I refer you to Mark G. Yudof, who, as president of the University of California system, is the preeminent bureaucrat in academia today. Yudof, interviewed recently on PBS, offered one flat reason for the price explosion in higher education: “Administration.”

This will, of course, come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in academia. In 1975 there was one administrator per 84 students and one nonacademic staff member per 50. By 2005 these ratios were 50 and 21, respectively. At the same time, faculty-to-student ratios remained constant while per-unit costs, as explained above, declined. Put another way: In 1975 there were 178,000 more faculty than administrators and support staff. In 2005 there were 181,000 more administrators and staff than faculty. That, to put it mildly, is crazy. It is also expensive.

The American university was not underbureaucratized in 1975; it is superbureaucratized today. The explanation lies in the corporatization of the modern university. It is not simply that corporate values have come to dominate the academy, but that a corporate management structure has replaced the older system in which administrators, typically drawn from and ultimately returning to faculty ranks, shared governance responsibilities with faculty representatives and senates, with whom they negotiated faculty salaries, benefits and working conditions (though not their own). This model, while far from perfect, did function after a fashion. It has almost completely vanished today. A professional administrative class has grown up with no experience of teaching or research and scant respect for accomplishment in either, except as it can be quantified as contributing to “profit centers.” This class has feathered its nest handsomely and redefined the work of the university in terms of what it does — compile reports, attend meetings and engross itself in mission statements and five-year plans, which always entail the need for more administration.

Not only has the number of administrators grown exponentially, but so have their salaries, particularly at higher levels. Drexel made national headlines recently with the revelation that it paid out $4.9 million in compensation and benefits to the estate of President Papadakis. This kind of Caesarean largesse was not long ago inconceivable in higher education, but of course, it is only modest compared to the payouts of other corporate executives. Welcome to the world of what one observer has called “the all-administrative university.”

Academia has become, in fact, a sweetheart racket for its beneficiaries. Universities have partnered with private businesses in profit-sharing enterprises while they themselves retain tax-exempt status. The corporatized university has also become the commoditized one, as we witness the chastity belt of businesses and private apartments growing up around Creese and MacAlister on our own campus. And, of course, universities that specialize in sports programs, like a certain neighbor in Happy Valley, reap neofeudal profits from athletic serfs who get room, board and emergency medical attention but are barred from earning a penny off the millions their labor generates. Like the Egyptian military, American higher education has branched out into areas of civil activity it was never designed for and — so far — enjoys privileges and exemptions denied to others with whom it competes. That state of affairs cannot last indefinitely. Nor should it.

President Obama has fired a shot across the bows of higher education in warning that if college costs continue to go up, government subvention will go down. This may not be an idle threat, and it signals that public patience is wearing thin. The problem is that education for participation in a democratic society has been so weakened, disenfranchised and compromised that it is hardly up to the task of defending itself, let alone engaging a wider community. That has been the tragedy of academia in my generation. When the reckoning comes, though, faculty and administration may find themselves in the same boat. They will then have no one to blame but each other.


Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at [email protected].