While upward mobility is far more limited than the American myths would have us believe, there is the story that college helps people move up the economic ladder. My family story nicely fits this narrative. My father’s parents did not finish high school—they had to take jobs to help support their families. My father not only finished high school, he ended up getting a master’s degree, taught high school for years and eventually taught mathematics at the college level. I earned my PhD and am currently part of the liberal conspiracy that masquerades as American education. As with the general American tale, my family moved up the economic rungs thanks to higher education. Because of this, I am in favor of college education for those who want it.
While college has never been cheap, recent years have seen an absurd increase in the cost of higher education that has greatly outpaced inflation. The reasons are quite clear. First, states have generally disinvested from public higher education. Some of this is a residue from when the financial sector burned down the economy, much of it is political choice. Some of this is ideological: Republicans now tend to oppose the idea of funding public colleges, preferring to channel money into the private sector. There is also the practical reason that weakening public education helps push students towards for-profit colleges—who have lobbied Republicans and Democrats. With less public support, more of the burden falls on students and their families.
Second, there is massive administrative bloat. Some of this bloat is in the form of the numbers of administrators—there are now assistant deans, associate deans, and deans. Some of this is due to burdens imposed by the state, such as assessment and enforcing various education laws. Some of it is due to the mad obsession of colleges to be like business: many now have such things as marketing departments who talk endlessly about the brand. There is also the natural tendency of bureaucrats to expand their bureaucracy. At this time, it is standard for schools to have entire cadres of administrators who have no direct connection to education or the educational mission at all. Administrative tasks are also now commonly assigned to faculty—thus requiring hiring more people to teach as their teaching time is devoured by these tasks.
In addition to the ever-increasing number of administrators there has also been a significant increase in their salaries, especially at the higher levels. It is not unheard of for university presidents to have salaries close to a million dollars and bonuses are standard practice. This is also a result of the business model: high paid “management” ruling over lower paid “workers.” While administrators advance arguments about how top money is needed to attract top talent from the private sector (usual business), the same arguments seem to never apply to faculty. Presumably because faculty are not as important to the mission of the university as administrators.
Third, there is the cost of fancy facilities and amenities. Some of this is certainly reasonable: smart classrooms with computers, wi-fi and such are more expensive than the traditional dumb classroom. Other luxury items mainly serve to drive up costs.
Since college does provide a way to advance up the ladder or at least get a strong grip on the rung, it is important to address the problem of high costs. While one solution has been to make colleges “free”, this runs into the obvious problem that there is no such thing as free college. “Free” college just shifts the cost burden—which can be a solution to the problems of some while potentially creating problems for others. This shift can, however, be morally and economically justified—but the discussion needs to be honest about who is paying for the college.
A less drastic solution is for states to return to investing strongly in education. This was once seen as a good idea on the obvious grounds that the money spent on students was returned many times over as well as on the non-economic positive returns on the investment. This does run against current trends, which is to funnel money towards those with the best lobbyists and fattest campaign contributions.
It would also help if the state reduced some of the imposed administrative burden on colleges. While this would have a negative impact on those employed in these administrative offices, it would help reduce the cost of education. The challenge is, however, sorting out which administrative burdens to lessen. Reducing administrative positions and salaries would also help.
The number of administrators could be brought back to the older ratios of administrators to everyone else and their salaries could be reduced to more closely match those of faculty. While it could be argued that this would cut down on the top talent, there are some obvious responses. One is that education obviously attracts top talent faculty who are willing to work for relatively low salaries. So, if the administrative logic were good, then the faculty should be terrible. Another is that the various scandals and problems have shown what these top dollars buy.
Finally, schools can also cut their spending on facilities and things that are not truly relevant to their educational mission. There are, of course, other possibilities but these would be a good start.