Higher education reform: A proposal

As we all know, higher education costs are increasing at a rate far in excess of inflation, burdening students with massive debt loads even as the economic value of their degrees becomes more questionable. I propose the following reforms to solve this problem:

  • All public colleges and universities must be fully funded using a separate tax stream not subject to the annual appropriations process and must provide a free undergraduate education to all qualified applicants.
  • All universities, whether public or private, must spend 85% of their operating budget on instruction.
  • All endowments in excess of ten years worth of the institution’s operating budget will be confiscated and pooled into a national endowment to be distributed to less privileged schools.

In essence, this is structurally similar to the “best case” version of Obamacare — a public option to compete against private insurers, plus a mandate that private insurers must devote a certain percentage of their revenues to medical losses. (Insurers have no equivalent to endowments that I can tell, so I had to add that.) I thought about more specific measures, such as banning for-profit colleges or forcing colleges to give up useless expensive football programs, etc., but it seems to me that those problems would go away more or less automatically within this framework.

16 thoughts on “Higher education reform: A proposal

  1. Another benefit: the instructional costs mandate removes the incentive to pay faculty as little as possible and adjunctify everything — the less you pay the faculty, the less “room” there is in the budget for administrative salaries!

  2. Having just sat in on our board of directors for a year, I find that this proposal seems shallow to me. And it seems so because of facilities and library resources. Fine, you’ve taken care of tuition. But you next need to destroy all institutional debt, which is the component that balances the endowment necessity on the other side of the ledger. And perhaps we all privatize our libraries under this system, spin them off into their own non-profits. (Which will slowly destroy their alignment with the parent institution, but relationships can be made to work.) Old buildings are still old buildings. Your alma mater is solving that problem because the U of C is willing to buy theirs and has the money to fix it and also build a new Chicago Theological; not every school is so situated. Most, in fact, are not — or can’t yet justify the terms of such a deal. And even new buildings will eventually be old buildings. How big is that 15%?

  3. I posted this in the hopes that people would point out where I was wrong, so this is good. The library issue is a significant one — maybe we could fold that into instruction?

    The 85% figure is literally just lifted from Obamacare, so I’m okay with lowering it — it has no actual basis in anything.

    The CTS arrangement is obviously completely unique, and it was only possible because U of C has an apparently irrational fixation on the old CTS building, given that it’s a non-U of C property literally smack in the middle of the campus. (Even factoring that in, it’s a ridiculously favorable deal — Obama needs to hire the CTS negotiating team.)

    One thing that I like about Shimer College is, perhaps weirdly, the fact that they don’t have their own building. There are disadvantages to that, and I assume the move was involuntary to a significant degree, but it feels right to me, priority-wise — there’s something nice about an institution that can get by with a floor and a half of an office building, just enough room for a few round tables where we can talk about books. (Also a lab for the natural science courses.) My parish priest back in Kankakee for a while had been a former president of Catholic Theological Union as well, and he said that his philosophy was that they can get by with run-down buildings to leave more money to invest in actual people.

    All this is to say that I really thought about including a moratorium on all campus expansions.

  4. Living in Pennsylvania, where the public funding for education on all levels has been turned back 30 years (but the prison industry is doing just fine), the reform has moved away from asking why public education costs as much as it does to “we don’t care how you do it, just lower the taxpayer burden.” What has been avoided by both sides of the issue is an honest discussion about the public funding of at least 3 D1 athletic programs funded by the taxpayers (Penn State, Pitt, and Temple) and the fact that the public universities compete with each other and are in some ways outspending each other. For example, Penn State’s York Campus (where I will soon be teaching) has a campus in Lancaster; there are also Penn State campuses in Harrisburg and Hershey, both of which I drive by on my way to the York campus. There’s also a Berks campus, which is actually closer to my home. On top of this, the York campus is now operating a campus in Lancaster, which is home to Millersville University. Millersville threatened to lay off instructional faculty last year while dropping millions in opening a new campus that is only a 20 minute drive from the base campus. Several public universities, including even Temple, in Phildadelphia, operate a campus in Harrisburg. And on top of this, Harrisburg Area Community College has many campuses throughout the area, as well as a Reading-based community college in the area as well. Shippensburg University, another state college, has an aggressive ad campaign all over the region.

    My point is that the public sector’s leaders haven’t had honest discussions about long-term plans, and they are now each other’s competition at the dime of the taxpayer. The administration costs are what are really at stake if such a conversation were to take place, and it won’t.

  5. Two more things about the situation in PA. In Pittsburgh, the Pitt medical school is now in direct competition with private sector hospitals, and Pitt is using a lot of funds to advertise, compete, and even lobby against the private sector. Yet their hospitals cost more per patient. Now I understand the value of teaching hospitals, etc., etc., but here we have a situation where the state is cutting their funds and it’s clear that the administrators are, of course, not focusing upon instruction but on maintaining a market share of its consumers.

    A final outrage is that, to these ends, the agriculture programs at Penn State are being cut the most of anything. Living in a rural community it is abundantly clear how essential agricultural education, aside from the fact that it is in fact a land-grant university. Yet some of the PR regarding is is coming from Penn State itself, pointing the finger at the governor and not at the administrators who made these decisions.

  6. Penn State’s football team is said to earn $50 million in profit. Are those profits against expenses? How does tuition and state aid factor into it? I don’t know, but I am skeptical. That being said, people in my part of PA love Penn State football, they buy their trinkets, decorate their cars, buy tickets, and tailgate. Either way I don’t think we can have an honest conversation about public education without seriously putting college football on the chopping block.

  7. I see no problem in folding library costs into instruction. Academic libraries in general are in the early stages of a sea change that will fundamentally change everything about how a library functions. When this process is complete the majority of the costs currently associated with materials will be gone and what we’ll need to increase spending on will be librarian positions themselves.

    It would be nice to tie education funding to prison funding somehow to create even better incentives for both. I’m not sure exactly how this should happen. Maybe for every $1 that goes to keeping someone locked up $2 gets added to the state university budget.

    I’d actually like to see a bunch of expert economists map out an alternative proposal for how universities should be structured. If we had a fully articulated alternative then we could pick a date and occupy every university in the country until our alternative plan is adopted. We could even be a little gracious towards all the administrators who would be losing their cozy jobs by giving them a first crack at applying for new teaching positions.

  8. CTS may not be entirely unique. Union sold their entire library to Columbia, and the north wing of the campus building. In return, they didn’t go under; Columbia added another building to their list of property and their claim to eminent domain in lower Harlem.

  9. “Academic libraries in general are in the early stages of a sea change that will fundamentally change everything about how a library functions. When this process is complete the majority of the costs currently associated with materials will be gone and what we’ll need to increase spending on will be librarian positions themselves.”

    I know a great many librarians who would disagree with you, and only a few theorists who truly believe in the all-electronic services future. Acquisitions is a strategic process that never goes away; books aren’t in any danger of disappearing, either. When you buy a book, it’s yours indefinitely; electronica haven’t got the same library value in the long run yet. And where there are books — even and especially in the case of digitization — there are materials maintenance costs over the life of the item. The real “sea change” — into something strange, if not necessarily rich — is the growing trend toward closed stacks and mechanical retrieval. “Serendipitous browsing,” for ages the hallmark of American academic libraries, is being cut down. But there, you’re absolutely right: these become staff-intensive facilities.

  10. But I am reminded of something Joseph Sittler said in 1979, talking to a gathering of Lutheran college faculty:
    “Look at Trinity College, Cambridge. What kind of a college is this? It hasn’t anything in it, even today, that most of our colleges talk about. Some of the buildings are falling apart, the food is horrible, the faculty not particularly celebrated. Yet, they turn out generation after generation of extraordinarily competent men and women. The students receive one-to-one education, learn to write English with clarity and precision, and read what they’re told. That is what a college does: it accomplishes opening outward and unfolding. When we talk about what constitutes the greatness of a college, we ought to think with a certain creative bewilderment of Trinity College, which has nothing which we think we have to have.”

  11. @Matt, the whole world is becoming more and more like one giant library. Academic libraries are not masters of their own fates in this transformation, their innovations are going to come in the form of how to adapt their roles within these larger changes. Acquisitions most certainly will disappear. Every new book will be available to everyone for free the day it is published. We’re not there yet, and we won’t even be there soon, but this is where we’re headed eventually. Physical books are not indefinite yours which is why every academic library spends a portion of their budget repairing and protecting and replacing fragile books. Only electronic books are really indefinite yours. There will be maintenance costs for such resources but they will be almost entirely external to academic libraries. Again, the whole world will be a library and the costs will be supported by the general marketplace rather than individual libraries. The library buildings and budgets will be repurposed. A small collection will be maintained for rare or historically noteworthy physical books but it will feel more like a museum and less like a library.

    The real value of the future academic library won’t be the materials, it will be the librarians themselves and this is where things start to get really interesting to me. This last semester I taught a grad seminar on libraries, a portion of my students will become academic librarians. What we tried to do was envision what the role of the librarian should be in the 21st century and the students created real life projects and started to implement them.

    I have no doubt that many librarians would strongly disagree with the picture I’m laying out. There is a tremendous about of uncertainty and anxiety in the library world. Everyone knows that something they love is going to change dramatically within their lifetime and they’re not sure what it will become, they’re not sure if they will have jobs (especially given the economy) and they feel a lot of pressure to justify themselves (especially in this economy). But I would say that the best, most innovative academic librarians are already re-inventing the position entirely. In my view the University of Michigan is the most innovative of academic libraries out there, but my main focus is on public libraries so I know much more about them.

    I do share you sense of loss for serendipitous browsing. Every call number I look up in the catalog leads to about 15 books that I actually check out.

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