In my last post I suggested that the real scandal involving American universities is not the admissions bribery by desperate parents but the inexplicable, inexorable increases in university fees that are burying millions of students under a mountain of debt.
I mentioned the case of a young relative of mine who went to university in 1985 when tuition, room and board amounted to about $15,000. Inflation between 1985 and 2019 averaged 2.54%. This means that an inflation-adjusted $15,000 in 1985 amounts to $35,238 in 2019.And yet many private, renowned, universities are now charging double that amount. A year at Yale, for example, will now cost more than $70,000.
The only thing that shocks me is why more parents aren’t demanding exactly how universities can justify increasing their fees more than double the inflation rate. When do parents begin to revolt and start examining very closely just what they’re getting for all that money, start demanding that the universities make some radical changes, start looking for more reasonable alternatives? Just how far have universities strayed from their basic purpose of education and research?
Perhaps the first question is why it takes four years to get a university degree. British universities take only three years to deliver quality education. Think of the money that could be saved if American universities squeezed more out of the year.
Another reality stands out clearly with even a casual glance at any university’s glossy promotional brochure. They have become far more than mere educational institutions. Along with teaching and research they have become hospitality, entertainment and athletic conglomerates – each piece of which is very, very expensive. This involves, of course, increasing the university administration with more and more non-academic deans, each of whom costs well over $100,000 when you include their staff and expenses. Un-bundling the conglomerate structure could include a cull of these non-academic administrators.
Take the hospitality part. It is possible for the universities to sell some of their expensive living and dining facilities to professional hospitality companies who would then offer that accommodation to the students who would have the option of living there or going elsewhere. Think of the immediate cash inflow and reduction of maintenance expenses for the universities. Some alumni might scream to see Marriott’s name engraved over the dormitory, but presumably some of those savings would be passed on long-suffering parents.
The brochures also stress the elaborate and extremely well-equipped student union/entertainment/gym centers. Fine, but who pays for it. Again, wouldn’t the universities be financially better off sub-contracting that business to professionals. Students who want to use those facilities would pay extra, but the kid who never goes near them would not be burdened with having part of his tuition used to fund those centers.
And then there’s the very touchy subject of athletics. Let’s take the Ivy League as an example. And I’m speaking here as a former Ivy League varsity athlete. While they are by no means national football and basketball powerhouses, Ivy League schools take athletics very seriously indeed. It is not unusual, for example, for an Ivy League team to bid for a national championship in sports like lacrosse, crew, or ice hockey. A mid-sized Ivy League university offers about 30 men’s and women’s intercollegiate athletic programs. Each of these teams has at least one -- usually more – coach in addition to equipment, medical insurance, travel expenses, facility expenses, etc. Then there’s the Director of Athletics and his/her staff. In short, it’s a very expensive business. Hard to justify why any portion of the tuition for some kid who is tied to a physics lab all day should go for this activity.
Don’t get me wrong. I love athletics and enjoy a good football game as much as anyone. But when parents are sacrificing so much to pay for their kids’ education there has to be a better way to pay for them. I propose ending university financial support for athletics. Shift that burden to the alumni/supporters willing to pay for them. Some schools have taken the first step in this direction by establishing sports foundations that help fund a broad range of athletic programs. I would go further an require all athletic funding to go through these foundations. The university could maintain control/oversight of the foundation to make sure the programs do not compromise the fundamental educational principles of the university.
The football program of the University of Alabama-Birmingham offers a very interesting example. When the president of UAB announced in late 2014 that the school was dropping football there was a huge outcry. Over the next six months interested alumni, local business leaders, county and state officials felt that the football program was so important for the entire community that they raised enough money not just to restore the program but to build a new stadium. This was a classic win/win. Supporters got their football and the university could get back to what it is supposed to do.
Universities could use some of the savings from these cuts to increase their course program and pay professors more. Instead, what many of schools are doing is hiring desperate post-grads on one-year minimal-wage contracts, so-called 'adjunct professors'. It’s a little like a law firm charging a client at a full partner’s rate only to have the actual work shunted off to a low-paid (relatively) first year associate. Instead of getting professors committed to teaching and/or research students face this revolving door of one-year wonders who offer no long-term commitment. I wonder if parents even realize just how much their kids are getting short-changed?
It all comes down to examining very closely exactly what one wants from a university education. If you want the full conglomerate package you’re free to pay for it. If, however, you want a more tailored approach offering a high-quality educational experience without the extras you’re going to have to look very, very hard. Maybe it’s time for some bright entrepreneur to adapt the budget airline approach to education. Charge for what’s important, but forget the in-flight snacks.