Education costs

I don’t think that education is expensive in essence. For the vast majority of classes, you need an instructor, some books, and a room with adequate seating and a chalkboard. It probably helps to pay the instructors something like a decent middle-class salary, both to keep them happy and to help make sure the students respect them, but that isn’t that expensive to do. Labs might complicate matters, but I’d imagine that adequate facilities for the basic classes can be had cheaply.

You know what is expensive, though? Buildings! And debt service on the buildings! And administrative overhead! (How much of the cost savings from the use of adjunct labor has gone toward the added administrative hassles that would obviously grow out of using an ever-changing army of part-time instructors?) And student services! (How about instead of having a counseling center on campus, we just let the kids find a psychologist on their own, using the health insurance they’re legally obligated to have? How about instead of a vast student life apparatus to get them socializing, we just have them constantly live and work around people their own age and let them do the work?) And athletics, which add to all the other three — and let’s not even talk about athletic scholarships!

All of this is abundantly obvious. Yet all we ever hear about is labor costs and the need for greater “efficiency” — such as the use of online programs, which tend to be staffed by part-timers (i.e., more administrative overhead) and require vast technological apparatuses to work (i.e., more money on technology and more IT people). After all, if costs are going up, the only possible cause is labor costs or low labor productivity. It can’t be that administrators are overpaying themselves. It can’t be that universities are continually investing in expensive boondoggles — new athletic facilities, campus expansions, satellite campuses, etc., etc.

No, it can’t be that univerisities are, by and large, poorly managed by overpaid empty suits who blindly imitate corporate models in a setting where that’s completely inappropriate and even destructive. No, it has to be the workers’ fault, because it’s always and everywhere the workers’ fault. The workers must learn to do more with less — while the managers always figure out ways to do less with more and more and more. Because, I mean, what do those overpaid professors even do? Sure wish I got the summers off!

7 thoughts on “Education costs

  1. Rooms don’t cost all that much. Administration IS expensive but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make sense economically for the university, even if there is mismanagement.

    The cost/benefit analysis concerns the realm of necessity. While it might be tempting to argue that capitalism fails even there, I am afraid that is a loosing battle: you would have to argue that universities work against their own economical interest. The real fight is about the realm of freedom, i.e. that which doesn’t pay off. Yes, humanities are expensive (at least when the teachers are paid adequately) and no, that doesn’t “pay off”, neither individually not nationally. It’s called civilisation. Of course, participation in the realm of freedom has always been possible, for a few. The struggle is to open the realm of freedom to the masses, the “underprivileged”, not to restrict (higher) education to a means to become CEO or PotUS but to allow participation in the realm of freedom.

    If education is expensive, that is a good thing.

    And, obviously, if we don’t want to educate in order to be economically, the real real struggle has to be outside university.

  2. As a hopeful future member of higher-ed administration, yes, Adam is correct: there has been essentially no growth in instructor salaries. There has been a bit of growth in salaries for high-end science researchers (who also have very significant managerial and administrative functions), but those people do essentially no (or extremely limited) undergrad education. The cost increases have come from those areas that Adam points to: building, building maintenance and plant maintenance, many more administrators and other peripheral stuff. Though rising health care costs are a factor too (but that’s not under the control of anybody, much less university administration).

    A lot of this is that the university presidents get rated (and rate themselves) on USNWR rankings. What those rankings do is roughly equate new university “stuff” (new buildings, newly renovated buildings, new programs, new labs, new research efforts, etc) with better quality. Potential students and alumni also like the aesthetic pleasure of a beautiful campus (this may sound ludicrous but a beautiful campus is actually quite a powerful incentive for alumni donations, parent donations and getting better students).

  3. Let’s look at brute numbers here. According to this post, the average tuition is $8,200 per year. If we assume the following: the average student takes 4 courses per semester (i.e. $1025 per student per class), the average class size is 20 ($20,500 per class), each instructor teaches an average of 4 courses per semester ($164,000 in revenue per instructor), and all instructors receive the average instructor compensation (AAUP report this month: $106,738). That leaves a difference of $57,262 per instructor per year. Throw in the number of faculty surveyed in the AAUP report (388,937) and the number of campuses surveyed (3,685), and we have an average of 105 faculty per campus which gives a tuition excess of $6M a year. Yes, I know that is a very basic calculation without much nuance (cost of utilities, buildings, supplies, staff, grants, scholarships, alumni donations, labs, government funding, etc), but it does seem that $6 is enough to organize a decent budget for a faculty size of 100 (have 10 janitorial staff @ $35k, 20 admin assistants @ $50k, 4 deans @ $150k, 3 senior management @ $200k), two buildings, and a parking lot.

    To try to start touching on the building cost, we can play with numbers a bit more. The average campus, following the numbers above, would have a total of 400 classes on offer each semester. Assuming a mere 10 ‘class slots’ (6 1-hr lectures MWF and 4 1.5 hr lectures on TTh), we would need a total of 40 classrooms (let’s say 50 just to have some extra space) each around 1350 sqft (following this article). Using this data, that would cost roughly $15M to build in NYC. I’ll double that cost to include the cost of offices (plus hopefully some other student-use buildings), and we’re still looking at only $30M — an amount which could be paid off in just ten years using the above numbers (well, probably more like 15 if we tack on interest). The average cost for a parking garage (according to this post) is $9M (which adds just another 3-5 years of the budget). There’s still the issue of getting the land, preparing it, additional buildings, etc. However, there still seems to be a strong argument here that tuition under $10k alone *could* pay for everything a university needs to be a university (e.g. without an athletic program, additional student-use buildings, etc) even in places like NYC where costs are well above the national average. Unless, of course, there’s something else eating up the university’s revenue. For example, my numbers above would never work because there are far more administrative types (with higher compensation that then numbers I gave), more additional staff, etc. However, the number do seem to suggest (without any guarantee of statistical significance) that the costs for faculty and classrooms are not the driving force behind the increase in education costs for those are certainly contained well within the $8,200 average tuition rate (especially once we add adjuncts into the mix).

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