The Problem with “College Costs” Articles




Everyone associated with the Higher Education field, and a lot of people who aren’t, seem to like to talk about the cost of Higher Education. From Kevin Carey’s book “The End of College” to New York Times opinion pieces and their responses, and more responses this is a hot topic. For a Canadian perspective I find a lot of interesting thoughts on the topic with this blog too.

Having read too many articles which explicitly ignore points which contradict their narative I’m going to propose two New Rules:

1) If you write an article about the cost of higher education and don’t talk about amount spent per student and amount of government funding per student you don’t get published.

There are a lot of metrics that can be used. I happen to like percentage of GDP as a way of looking at higher education funding. Then there’s cost after taking inflation into account. There’s real dollars given by the government, or percentage of the budget. There are a hundred different ways of looking at it.  But what needs to be front and center is students. I think we can all agree that the point of Higher Education is to educate students. There are other goals of course (THE’s world university rankings only count educating students as 30% of the ranking score, but that’s not an issue I want to get into now) but the first goal is education.

Because of that I’d like to propose that you must break down either costs or funding into a per student or per FTE level. This will give people a better way of looking at it.  How much more does it cost University of Wherever to educate one FTE now than it did twenty years ago after taking into account inflation? How much more or less funding is the provincial government giving to the University of Wherever per FTE than twenty years ago (accounting for inflation)?

It won’t completely fix the problem, but it will give a better measure. Maybe the increase in costs at University of Wherever are mostly because they increased their student population by 50% over the last twenty years. Maybe the decrease in percentage of provincial budget is showing that the budget increased but the amount being given per FTE is the same. More data is always good. And yes it might undermine your narrative, but that shows a problem with the narrative, not the data.

2) if you talk in broad strokes about “Administration” and “Faculty” without defining or breaking it down you don’t get published.

When “Faculty” is brought up as the boogie man a break down into tenure and non tenure is almost never proposed. Or when it is the total percentage of tenure is never brought up. Tenure faculty cost an institution more, but at the same time they’re a rapidly decreasing percentage of the total faculty. Keeping that in mind and looking at the actual breakdown gives a much fuller picture of what’s happening.

When we look at “Administration” are we looking at just upper management? Or are we including the entire Student Affairs, IT, and Library fields? With all the talk of increasing “Administration” it’s never brought up as to WHY it’s increasing. Do you have more students in your school? You’ll need another counselor. More students in res? You’ll need a bigger Res Life staff. Trying to use Student Life to attract students and increase retention? Who’s running that for you? Did you have an IT department of more than two people in 1993? Well now you have 20+. Academic advising? Well 70 years ago that may have been part of tenured faculty’s job but not any more. How many library staff are falling under the “administration” budget? Oh all of them? How would you like to cut that staff? For American universities what about government accountability? Did you have staff for title IX compliance twenty years ago? Who does that job now?

Having seen a government push in the health sector for decreasing “Administration” costs be handled by cutting the library and staff support instead of manager’s compensation I’m always leery of attacking an “Administration” cost without breaking it down.

So yes, there is a money problem in Higher Education. But we don’t get to just attack one side or the other or the other. It’s not all the government’s fault. It’s not all the Administration’s fault. It’s not all the Faculty’s fault. It’s a complex problem and it surprises me when an educated person tries to say that there’s a very simple solution to it. Narrative should never be more important to your writing than accuracy.


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