Home > education, rant > Everyone hates college administrators

Everyone hates college administrators

April 7, 2015

If you were wondering why I didn’t blog yesterday, which you probably weren’t (confession: I don’t read other peoples’ blogs and I don’t listen to any podcasts. So I would never, ever ask anyone to read my blog or listen to my podcast), it was because I was completely confused and irritated by this NYTimes opinion piece on the rising cost of college, written by University of Colorado Law Professor Paul Campos.

I really think the Times needs to either have footnotes or hyperlinks in their opinion pieces, because this guy was playing so fast and loose with his numbers that I had really no idea what he was talking about most of the time. That’s saying something considering that this, the cost of college and its causes, is something I have spent many hours thinking about and researching.

So what happened was, I didn’t have time to completely formulate my opposition to why his reasoning was muddled and confusing. I spent way too much time trying to figure out where he was getting his data. Waste of time.

Good news, though, my Slate Money co-host Jordan Weissman has done all that work for us, in his piece aptly entitled The New York Times Offers One of the Worst Explanations You’ll Read of Why College Is So Expensive. Who says procrastination doesn’t work?

As usual, if you’ve ever listened to my podcast (and this isn’t a request for you to do so!), I don’t agree completely with Jordan. However, my delta of agreement with Jordan is very manageable compared to the delta of disagreement I had with Campos. Basically I would quibble with laying any of the blame at the feet of instructors, but since he barely does that, let’s just go with his awesome take-down.

Take-down of what? Well, Campos basically hates college administrators, and pretends there’s no other problems in the world except them. It’s a mistake that he doesn’t have to make.

I mean really, who doesn’t hate college administrators? As a former college administrator myself, I know it’s universal; I certainly hated myself the entire time.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no other factors at all. Reduced public money for colleges is in fact a huge problem, especially when you pair it with the increased federal aid money going to students at corrupt for-profit colleges. Corinthian obtained $1.4 billion in federal grant and loan dollars in 2010 alone, more than the 10 University of California campuses combined for that same year. This system is in terrible need of repair.

Instead of simply hating on college admin, or rather, in addition to hating on admin, can we start thinking about an alternative no-frills state college system that is truly affordable and gives honest and basic instructions without trying to compete on the US News & World Reports stage?

Categories: education, rant
  1. revuluri
    April 7, 2015 at 9:55 am

    I am totally with you! And thanks so much for pointing out Jordan’s critique; I will have to read it today. (I’m not sure I agree 100% on the proposed “no-frills” solution, since the vogue for that now seems to be rather MOOC-ish and it leaves out a lot of context, especially for students who have historically had less access to higher education and were long under-served by the “legacy” system, but are being somewhat better served now.)

    First, totally agree that Campos plays fast and loose with his numbers (not in a dishonest or even intentionally misleading way, but literally switching fast among different perspectives and measures and “denominators” for his statistics, and loose in terms of making these clear). He asserts that his spending numbers are inflation-adjusted, but it’s unclear when he adjusts for population growth (overall, let alone age cohorts). He mentions, then fails to adjust for, the vast expansion in students going to college. These (in addition to the lack of citations that both Cathy and I noticed) make it hard to evaluate the import of the various changes and drivers, and the overall validity of his argument.

    Second, lumping everything under “administrative bloat” is unhelpful. Even if we grant that there’s been more such spending, it is not clear what it’s spent on (its goals, rather than the budget line they show up on). Some is from increased attention to things that matter in the “core mission” (ensuring and improving the quality of teaching, counseling supports for students — especially as the “target population” broadens). Some is from a broadening mission and/or managing the consequences of the system (financial aid, fundraising, student activities, etc.). Some is likely out-of-mission (managing “Cadillac” campuses, and depending on one’s point of view, perhaps large-scale athletic programs).

    Third, Campos hardly mentions the role of need-based financial aid, and I didn’t see any mention of “net price” — which I’ve seen mentioned a lot lately as showing a much slower level of growth than “sticker price” tuition. Complaints that “sticker price” tuition is rising may be partly (or even largely) a complaint about price discrimination (in the economics sense, not any colloquial sense).

    Fourth, I think there are more significant tensions among sometimes-competing missions that haven’t yet been unpacked enough. The big one is teaching of current students vs. research and scholarship. Looking at per-student budgets and presuming that all the money is reasonably attributable to instruction is pretty bogus. (This gets tricky when the people doing both kinds of work are sometimes the same people, and there is a reasonable assertion of synergy.)

    Fifth, I wonder about the role of academic medical establishments in looking at university budgets. Almost every university I’ve been associated with has a major business (if nonprofit) providing medical care, and I wonder how their faculty, staff, and administration compare and contribute to the traditionally-conceived university. They’re just so big. (But I’ve been in large cities for the last 25 years (Chicago, New York) and so I’m not sure if this is a consistent pattern in other kinds of places.)


    • RTG
      April 8, 2015 at 11:49 pm

      The question of how universities balance their teaching and research missions, I think, is very relevant to students’ educational experience. I don’t know exactly how it factors into the amount students pay for college, but I certainly think it contributes to the quality of education they receive. The faculty caste system of tenure vs. adjunct does not seem sustainable. No matter how excellent the adjunct, at some point the horrendous pay and lack of job security is going to impact performance (otherwise, why pay people reasonable salaries at all?).

      If you haven’t read it, “How Economics Shape Science” by Paula Stephan delves into issues of Federal research policy and its impact on the modern university. It’s an excellent read.


  2. Christina Sormani
    April 7, 2015 at 10:54 am

    Why do you write “no-frills state college system that is truly affordable and gives honest and basic instructions without trying to compete on the US News & World Reports stage?”. Why can’t state universities compete on this level? Stony Brook certainly does very well. Other SUNY and CUNY programs are also well ranked. I believe public universities should be research centers and not just advanced high schools.


    • April 7, 2015 at 11:26 am

      SUNY and CUNY are my models here. I didn’t mean low level when I said basic.


  3. April 7, 2015 at 11:29 am

    I’m not impressed by this critique.

    The Slate headline is inflammatory and misrepresents Weissmann’s article, which agrees with Campos’s basic point about administrative bloat. Weissmann also agrees that public spending on higher education has “risen dramatically.”

    The disagreement is whether we can nonetheless say that spending has been cut by measuring it in terms of per-student spending. One can certainly argue that per-student spending is a better way to measure education budgets, but it’s not as if Campos hid what he was doing. A better critique would be that if you want to look at it from the perspective of the state budget–“how on earth are we going to fund the huge increase in college attendance?”–you should assess the state spending in terms of percentage of state budget, state GDP, or tax base. But there’s nothing inherently invalid about considering the spending from the perspective of the payers instead of the recipients.

    Disclosure: I am also a law professor at the University of Colorado (with an office next door to Campos’s).


    • April 7, 2015 at 11:34 am

      Here’s where I disagree. Campos’s headline talked about “the real reason college tuition costs so much.” That implies he will care about the cost to the individual. Then he switches it immediately to the cost to the state.

      Talk about misleading headlines.


      • FogOfWar
        April 7, 2015 at 12:03 pm

        To be fair, if you critique the headline to an article you’re really upset at the editorial staff at the paper, not the author. I believe headlines are usually crafted by editors to maximize page views and as click-bait rather than as an accurate reflection on the substance of the article below, and the author often (usually?) doesn’t have any control or even say on the headline.



  4. David18
    April 7, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    My father is a prof at a major well-rated state university and I’ve followed the problem of rising tution costs even when I was in high school. The largest problem is underfunding from the state as more and more state funds goes towards Medicaid. The new health legislation (as pointed out by Peter Orszag) has only made this problem worse as an increasing amount of the state budget is spent on Medicaid.

    A second effect is a rising wage effect (I’ve forgotten the name) for faculty. Faculty are paid much more money in the US than they are in England, Australia, Germany, France or probably any major country.

    A third reason is that there are faculty who do not receive funding from grants that only teach one or two courses per semester.

    A fourth reason major cities such as New York is the rising cost of land due to “rent seeking” from politics that deliberately limits the supply of housing through zoning density restrictions and overuse of historic landmark status (as pointed out by Harvard Economist Howard Glaeser and Nobelist Paul Krugman who cites Glaeser). Columbia professors (and retired professors) receive below market rate housing. This subsidy of course increases the cost of education. Invariably because of the high cost of living largely caused by this rent seeking Columbia must pay all of its employees more money than they otherwise would have had the rent seeking not taken place.

    On a related topic, there is an ridiculous article in the NY Times today about NY Mayor deBlasio not being able to afford college tuition for his two children. The story mentions 1) that his children want to go to / are attending very expensive private colleges when CUNY tution is only about $7,000 per year and the children could live at home and 2) his wife is not working (she is doing volunteer work). In most families that I know of that have children in college the wife as well as the husband has a job to help pay for their childs’ college educations.
    It is as if someone who can afford a Toyota somehow seems entitled to have a BMW when both suffice in terms of reliable transportation.


    • David18
      April 7, 2015 at 12:25 pm

      I accidentally left out that the students as well as faculty also receive subsidized housing which of course must be paid for.


  5. David18
    April 7, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Here is (former) Director of the Congressional Budget Office Peter Orszag’s comments on Medicaid funding crowding out funding for higher education.


  6. kcm
    April 7, 2015 at 1:50 pm

    There was a study recently published by the Public Policy Institute of CA that looked at the situation in the UC and CSU systems: http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_quick.asp?i=1119
    Reaches a different conclusion that Campos.

    Though you probably know that, and perhaps one of the other critiques points this report out – haven’t read them all yet.


  7. April 7, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    The Slate article does not address the problem of administrative bloat and the impact of 7 figure administrator salaries (+ luxury housing grants) on income inequality.


  8. sam
    April 8, 2015 at 1:12 am

    Great post Cathy, I was totally hoodwinked by the article when I read it. Thanks for the link to the Corinthian piece. Everybody knows student aid at some private colleges is a huge boondoggle so that was a glaring omission from Campos’s piece.


  9. Bobito
    April 8, 2015 at 4:52 am

    Bloated faculty salaries need more attention. 300K annually to a chemistry professor is just ridiculous.


    • JSE
      April 8, 2015 at 11:12 am

      Not to mention so unusual as to be irrelevant to the overall issue.


    • David18
      April 8, 2015 at 11:26 am

      Actually, the $300k can be justified if the prof is bringing in a large amount of money in grants which is often the case for science, engineering and medical faculty. The top paid at Cornell and NYU are fertility doctors: in 2009 Prof Zev Rosenwaks at Cornell earned over *** $3 million *** and Prof Grifo at NYU about $2.4 million.

      Modern research universities get their money from faculty that are prestigious enough to bring in patients or large grants as well as to attract other faculty and students. Universities charge grants a large percentage for “overhead” which helps to pay for instruction.

      In 2014, the Univ of Illinois in Urbana brings in $170 million each year in NSF grants for Computer Science research (second place Cornell about $115 million).


  10. Mark
    April 9, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    I think a large part of the problem is the rapid growth in endowments, even at state universities. All of the large state universities have endowments that are close to a billion dollars, or more. The presidents and chancellors have built these endowments because they fear a future reduction or cessation of state spending. The economic effect of these endowments, and of the even larger endowments at private universities, is to borrow from the present to pay for the future. Hence tuitions rise.

    But this is not a problem of individuals behaving badly. Gordon Gee’s salary is as nothing to the endowment of Ohio State (not sure about West Virginia). This is a structural problem;’ the incentives on college presidents push them to larger endowments, We need to change the incentives, possibly through tax policy.


    • April 14, 2015 at 9:39 am

      “According to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Gee collected $6,057,615 in salary, bonuses, benefits and deferred compensation from the university for the 2012-13 fiscal year, as well as a generous five-year contract to serve as president emeritus through 2018.May 18, 2014”

      Talk about income inequality!!!!!


  11. April 14, 2015 at 12:23 am

    thx for your attn/ dedication to edu reform & standing up for underdogs over many posts, keep up the good work. see also this recent compilation higher education under heavy fire from all sides, tectonic shifts underway


  1. No trackbacks yet.
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: