This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on April 30, 2016.
If shifting blame to others was a virtue, the U.S. higher education establishment would be poised for sainthood.
A recent study shows that college tuitions nationwide have spiked 538 percent from 1985 to 2013, “compared with a 286 percent jump in medical costs and a 121 percent gain in the consumer price index.” In an attempt to keep pace with these historic price increases, students and their parents have amassed historic student-loan debt, which today is close to $1.3 trillion, which is more than total national credit card debt. No surprise, another study finds that 27.3 percent of student borrowers are now in default on their loans.
Quite the crisis, no doubt. Who’s to blame? You are.
So says a higher education group called the “Lincoln Project: Excellence and Access in Public Higher Education.” Its recent report begins its charge by informing readers that it has considered the implications of reduced state investment in public higher education; assessed the role of the federal government in funding our great public research universities; and developed recommendations for ensuring that public universities continue to serve the nation”
Given its first premise—allegedly “reduced state investment in higher education,” it is not difficult to imagine where its recommendations go: further into the pockets of taxpayers. Its first mandate for state legislatures is to “find alternative strategies to balance the state budget besides cutting university funding.” Its second recommendation follows from the first: “Reverse cuts made over the last decade, restoring funding to pre-recession levels, incrementally if not in their entirety at once.”
The notion that state funding cuts are the cause of tuition hyperinflation has been debunked in the past for the myth that it is, but defenders of the failed higher education status quo continue to invoke it nonetheless. On April 11, University of Texas-Austin president Greg Fenves embraced the Lincoln Project’s recommendations, arguing that funding is “getting to a critical stage.” Robert Birgeneau, Lincoln Project co-chair and past chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley added, “Tuition cannot keep going up indefinitely at rapid rates. . . .This is a lot to ask for, but the resources are out there. It’s not a pipe dream.”
What may be a pipe dream is Birgeneau’s apparent expectation that no one will refute the “state-funding-cuts-made-us-raise-tuition” fairytale. Here are the facts in Texas, the country’s second most-populous state. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, between fall 2000 and fall 2010, yes, state funding decreased 15.9 percent on an inflation-adjusted, per-full-time-pupil basis. But, during the same ten-year period, public university tuitions and fees collected (meaning, not merely advertised prices that were subsequently discounted) increased 75 percent. As I have documented in the past, the more nuanced truth behind the half-truth advanced by defenders of the higher education status quo is this: While state funding for Texas public higher education mildly decreased during the first decade of the new millennium, university spending has wildly increased during the same period.
I have commented in the past on the work of Paul Campos, who has examined the history of state funding nationwide for higher education. He demonstrates that tuition hyperinflation, rather than being a direct effect of “funding cuts,” instead “correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education.” He adds that, “if over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.” He admits that, although state funding for higher education has risen far faster than inflation, dollars appropriated per student are now less than they were “at their peak in 1990.” But he also shows that “appropriations per student are much higher than they were in the 1960s and 1970s, when tuition was a small fraction of what it is today.” In fact, “by 1980, state funding for higher education had increased a mind-boggling 390 percent in real terms over the previous twenty years.” But did this “tsunami of public money” help reduce tuition? No. “Quite the contrary.”
Campos therefore denounces as “disingenuous” those defenders of the higher-education status quo who label a “large increase in public spending a ‘cut’ . . . because a huge programmatic expansion features somewhat lower per capita subsidies.” For example: If the government had doubled the number of military bases since 1990, “while spending slightly less per base,” the charge that “funding for military bases was down,” although such funding “had nearly doubled, would properly be met with derision.” And yet this is exactly the storyline governing current discussions of state funding and tuition increases.
Where is all the taxpayers’ money going? Between 1993 and 2009, administrative positions increased at “ten times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.” For example, a study of the California State University System finds that, while fulltime faculty members increased “from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183—a 221 percent increase.”
California is far from alone in this dilemma. Here in Texas, statewide leaders have reacted angrily to a February report that revealed that a number of University of Texas System officials as well as campus presidents received six-figure annual pay increases.
It is not my purpose to comment on university personnel or the pay increases that organizations decide to offer. Rather, the point is that this needs to be taken into account honestly and fully when we ask, “Why is college so expensive?”
An even more important question is this: Will the state-funding-cuts myth continue to carry the day, simultaneously browbeating allegedly “stingy” state legislators and hornswoggling the cash-strapped taxpayers these legislators represent? In Texas, at least, some are beginning to notice what’s lacking in the university empire’s new clothes. A month before the Lincoln Project report was unveiled, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Senate Higher Education Committee Chairman Kel Seliger sent a less-than-happy missive to all Texas public universities. “We are alarmed at reoccurring reports that our state universities have increased or are considering proposals to raise tuition on students,” the letter states. “These increases, combined with excessive bonus programs, indicate that our state universities have lost sight of their primary mission to provide a high quality education at an affordable cost to Texas families.”
Patrick and Seliger also point in the letter to the fact that, in 2015, the state legislature blessed $3.1 billion in construction funds for public higher education, nearly one-third of which is earmarked for the University of Texas System. The state also approved $40 million in spending to recruit Nobel laureates and other prestigious academics to Texas universities.
Apparently, none of this generosity impressed the academics who authored the Lincoln Project report. Instead, we are being told to give more. The tone-deafness of this approach is baffling. In the last decade of economic malaise, individuals, families, and businesses have had to learn to do more with less. But when universities are asked to contribute their fair share to this effort, the answer of the Lincoln Project report is “austerity for thee, but not for me.”
How much longer will we put up with this? In Texas, it is beginning to look like the answer is, “No longer.”