Lesson Plan

by Harry on June 6, 2016

I recommend William Bowen and Michael McPherson’s new book Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education to anyone who wants a better understanding of the problems in higher education in the US, and especially to anyone who is working in higher education and wants to contribute to improving it.

Among its many virtues are that it is short, and an easy read; but, despite that, it contains lots of useful information, well-organized, and although they are sketched rather detailed, its recommendations for change should be part of the debate on your campus, whatever your campus is like. I don’t think it is eccentric of them to take the 3 central challenges to higher education in the US as being raising attainment rates, reducing disparities in outcomes relating to socio-economic status, and controlling costs, and they have a good deal of interesting and useful things to say about all three. I’m not going to provide a comprehensive overview of the book (its short enough that you should just read it yourself), but will divide the post into a section on several points they make that seem not to be well understood in the public debate, including by a lot of faculty, and then a section on a couple of their recommendations for improvement in controlling costs.

First, the five points:

1. Administrative bloat does not explain rising tuition, contrary to popular myth. You’ll see figures saying that whereas in the 1970s faculty outnumbered administrators 2:1, now there is one administrator for every faculty member; one much quoted NYT article claims that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60% between 1993 and 2009”. Just seeing that claim should make anyone who works in a university suspicious – where are all these people? The NYT figure leaves out of the equation that enrollments grew by 42% in the same period, so that at worst administrative positions grew 1% a year faster than enrollments. And a very large part of the change in the ratios of ‘administrators’ to faculty is a result of changes in non-faculty needs of the institutions, and the tendency to classify more jobs as ‘administrative’ than in the past. More menial jobs (like typist, gardener) that were never classified as administrative have declined because of mechanization, computers, etc. At the same time a need for more professional jobs (most obviously IT people) that are classified as administrative has increased. The ratio of “executive, administrative and management” staff to students actually decreased slightly between 1991 and 2001 from 1.1:100 to 1:100.

2. Nor, in fact, does reduced state appropriations explain increased tuition. The pattern with state appropriations for higher education is pretty predictable: they decline as tax revenues decline (in recessions) and grow as they grow. We are in a long recession right now, so we have seen an 8-year decline, as with funding for other discretionary items in state budgets. The real kicker is not declining appropriations per se, but declining per-full-time-equivalent student appropriations. As larger numbers of students attend college, stable state appropriations mean reduced per-student appropriations. Its fine to say: “oh, well, we should be funding higher education more”, but that money has to come from somewhere – either from other parts of the State budget, or from increased tax revenues. Suppose for a moment that we can get the extra money from increased tax revenues or from the department of corrections or of transportation (I just assume nobody will propose taking it from k-12 or from medical assistance, which are typically the biggest parts of State budgets). I will not be popular for saying this, and I should emphasize that Bowen and McPherson do not say this, but it is hard to see why a sensible legislator concerned with improving education, or with improving fairness in education, would prioritize additional funding for higher education. Why? It’s not a priority if you care about fairness, because higher education is not a universal program, but one which less than 2/3rds of the cohort participate in, and is not even available to those who have received the worst education up to that point, who are almost exclusively among the less advantaged people in society; and nearly a half of those who DO participate do not get qualifications, and they, too, are disproportionately among the less advantaged of those who do use it. It’s not a priority if you just care about getting an educated population because we know that investments in early childhood and k-8 — the education levels in which everyone participates, are more cost-efficient up to some saturation point which we are still quite far from.

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