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March 15, 2023

The Bloat in Higher Ed

If the cost of college education is increasing at twice the rate of health care, where does all this extra money go? We should note that it isn’t going to the classroom. The average four-year, state university, spends around 16% of its annual revenue on faculty salaries. In fact, every year, state universities are spending less and less on faculty salaries as teaching is increasingly offloaded to underpaid grad students. So what are these colleges spending all of their money on?

First, colleges have seen a massive expansion in administration. A recent article about Washington State University, just across the state line from where I sit, sounds the alarm that over the course of thirty-one years, the university has seen a 61% growth in the student body, which was supported by a 41% growth in faculty and an 861% growth in the administration. As obscene as this statistic sounds, this kind of administrative bloat is fairly representative of most American colleges and universities. Another study shows that the California State University system grew its faculty from 1975 to 2008 by about 4% (11,614 faculty in 1975 to 12,109 in 2008). In the same period, the administration more than tripled (3,800 administrators in 1975 to 12,183 in 2008). In fact, the 2008 numbers provide for more than one full-time administrator for every faculty member. Our campus administrations have become ridiculously oversized.

One clear contributor to this administrative bloat is the fact that with increased federal funding comes increased requirements for reporting and regulatory compliance (Todd Zywicki and Christopher Koopman, George Mason University Law & Economic Research Paper Series, No. 17–12, p. 33.) In 1952, when congress overhauled the GI Bill, this time inspired by the flood of soldiers returning from Korea, a key adjustment made to the bill was a provision specifying that the school attended by the veteran must meet certain specifications in order for the veteran to be able to use his benefits there (Matthew Fuller, Journal of Student Financial Aid, 44.1, 2014).The provision seems common sense enough. If the government is picking up the tab for this education, then it is within the government’s rights to ensure that it is of a certain quality. And yet, this proved to be the camel’s nose under the tent. As federal financial aid for college tuition was expanded under Title IV, it brought with it this notion that the federal government had an obligation to verify the quality of the education that was being funded. Now, in order to receive Pell Grants and federally subsidized student loans, colleges must shoulder an extremely onerous reporting burden and staff a massive administrative bureaucracy in order to demonstrate compliance with the federal government’s requirements and keep their Title IV money flowing.

...the need to constantly demonstrate compliance has changed the character of our college education.

But on top of the added expense of this administration bloat, the need to constantly demonstrate compliance has changed the character of our college education. The reason is that the federal government is very ill-suited to the task of assessing something like the quality of a college education. There is an old joke about a man walking home late at night along a downtown sidewalk. He comes across another man, who is down on his hands and knees, searching for something underneath a streetlight. The first man stops and asks what the man is looking for and if he can help.

“Yes, I’ve lost my keys,” the man on his knees replies. “I’d appreciate your help.”

But after ten minutes of searching for the keys in vain, the first man asks,  “Are you sure this is where you dropped your keys?”

“No. I dropped them over there,” the other man answers and gestures thirty yards further up the street.

Exasperated, the first man asks, “Well, why in tarnation are we searching here?”

“Because the light is much better here.”

As ridiculous as this joke is, it is surprising how often we do this. For instance, consider this question – how do you assess the quality of a college education? That is an extremely difficult question to answer. Every college is different. Every course is different. Every student is different. So how do we come up with a federal standard by which we can assess all of these different colleges? What if we redefine our task a little bit? What if, instead of trying to assess whether or not these colleges are providing quality education, we assess whether or not they are properly defining their “learning outcomes”? We could define what a learning outcome should look like and then tell all the colleges that they need to formulate their learning outcomes in a nice rubric. Instead of trying to assess the quality of their education, we will assess whether or not they have completed this administrative task. That is a much more reasonable task, but you have to notice that you are no longer searching for the lost keys. You are not assessing the quality of the education; you are assessing a rubric of learning outcomes. You have redefined your task so that you are searching where the light is better.

You are not assessing the quality of the education; you are assessing a rubric of learning outcomes.

The obligation of reporting to the federal government has moved the goalposts on us. We are no longer striving to produce educated graduates; we are striving to produce the metrics that keep Title IV money flowing. And most of these metrics measure things that are peripheral to the actual moment of learning. The federal bureaucracy prizes the kind of quantifiable data that is oftentimes utterly irrelevant when it comes to indicating the actual quality of learning. Nevertheless, this sort of data is easily represented in a graph for a PowerPoint presentation.[6]

Thus federal money demands a certain kind of reporting in order to hold institutions accountable for the money that they have received. And slowly but surely, the reporting starts to dominate and transform the institution, first by requiring a bloated administration in order to accomplish its tasks, and second by demanding that the college focus on those things that are easiest to document rather than on those things that provide the best education.