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Back to School? A Higher Ed Crisis

It’s August, and millions of students, teachers, and administrators are headed back to the nation’s college campuses. Colleges predict enrollment will rise in 2022, reversing a decade of decline since a 2010 peak of 21 million students. On par with recent history, two-thirds of high school graduates will enter a 2- or 4-year program this fall. 

Even so, the nation’s appetite for college seems to be changing. Financial and cultural changes at universities have altered the cost-benefit calculus for students and families. 

What few families can see, at least before they arrive at a college, are the internal forces degrading both the internal and external values of university education. The structure of higher education is in crisis, in far more than dollar-and-cents terms.

De-Professionalizing Faculty

The academic magazine Inside Higher Ed published a recent piece reporting that increasing numbers of professors are leaving universities, and leaving academia for good. Careers in private industry, nonprofits, and think tanks, once called “Alternative Academic” or “Altac” jobs, are increasingly attractive to academia’s best minds. In the past, we have sometimes worried that academic research positions, especially at taxpayer-funded universities, lured big thinkers away from industry. But working conditions inside the Ivory Tower may now be pushing in the other direction.

When we imagine professorial life, the prevailing image seems to be of a private university in the 1970s: small, tidy classrooms, a stack of papers, 30 eager students, and dark-paneled offices full of books. 

Professor salaries have not benefited much from increasing enrollment and tuition. The number of full-time professionals teaching students has remained mostly unchanged, and the salary paid to full-time professors (see stats below) has grown modestly compared to total college costs. Inflation-adjusted faculty salaries rose 9.5 percent over 50 years, while tuition rose 2,580 percent.

Average faculty salary (in 2021 dollars):

  • 1970 – 12,710 ($88,763)
  • 1980 – 23,302 ($76,627)
  • 1990 – 42165 ($87,417)
  • 2000 – 60,084 ($94,546)
  • 2010 – 81,873 ($101,740)
  • 2020 – 99,754 ($104,440)

Moreover, a smaller percentage of teaching faculty are earning “faculty” wages than ever before. In 1970, tenured and tenure-track professors made up 78 percent of all teaching faculty. Now that percentage has reversed, with 73 percent of faculty positions being “adjunct” or “contingent,” and just one professor in five actually tenured.

Colleges are replacing tenure-track jobs with part-time faculty and adjuncts who teach for a low per-course rate (just $3,000 per course, on average, up to $10,000 at elite schools). Despite having the same academic credentials as their tenured counterparts, most adjuncts make less than $50,000 annually, and receive no employment benefits.

The job security of university faculty was once unrivaled anywhere in the professional market, but two-thirds now teach on term-to-term or one-year contracts. Academic freedom, one of the most coveted of faculty privileges, is nonexistent when contracts can be dropped without giving a reason or recourse (we will ignore, for now, the immense pressure of all faculty to toe a political line). Instead of a lovingly crafted syllabus reflecting individual expertise, adjuncts are often assigned large-scale, repetitive introductory courses with pre-assigned texts and rubrics. Perhaps that’s just as well, since most adjuncts don’t know what, or whether, they’re teaching until students are registered, just a few weeks before the first day. They don’t even have offices

While many adjuncts are superb teachers, the college experience for the student suffers. Despite paying higher-than-ever tuition, students are more likely taught, especially in the first two years, by overworked, under-paid contingent instructors, or graduate students. Their work will often be graded by teaching assistants. Their first year professors won’t teach a sequence of courses, so they can’t form relationships or follow a trusted guide to a future specialty, or know someone well enough to get a great recommendation letter. 

With true faculty positions being eliminated, and the competitive pool of low-wage contingent labor growing, the already grueling job market for full-time faculty slots has become even more punishing. Fewer than one in five graduation PhDs will find tenure-track positions after graduation, though half say that is their goal. They may exit academia, taking their teaching skills with them, or become one of the contingent faculty, serving students while having no say at all in how institutions are run. Though they accumulate the majority of student interactions at the ground level, their input is not sought in school policymaking or on committees. 

The surging number of college students has not been used to replicate the high-value, high-touch college education of the past. Instead, to serve “millions and millions,” higher ed adopted a bare-minimum, just-in-time, fast-food model of employment and instruction. 

Administrangling Education

If teaching faculty are not receiving any of the vastly increased tuition dollars, and in fact classroom teaching is being shifted toward lower-cost adjuncts, where is all that money going?

Administrative and professional staff attached to the university, who neither teach nor conduct research, has been rising at twice the rate of student growth, and 10 times the increase for tenured faculty. Administrators now outnumber teaching staff 2 to 1 at schools nationwide.

A significant share of these administrative positions exist to ensure compliance with state and federal mandates. Large state universities employ an entire department for Title IX compliance, dozens of professionals to ensure adherence with dense Department of Education guidance. Regulatory compliance may require 3 to 11 percent of total operating costs, according to a Vanderbilt study of 13 schools. 

Amid the academic arms race to attract students (and the difficulty of showing a high-quality curriculum on a tour) administrators increasingly work in “student experience” roles. Colleges employ academic counselors and career success specialists, who are often doing the work that traditional faculty roles fulfilled. Departments dutifully expanding their own domains proliferate what Benjamin Ginsberg called “deanlets.” These often-earnest people have job descriptions that are difficult to specify, and their overall contribution to the value (or cost) of a university education is difficult to quantify.

Thousands of administrator positions are listed on HigherEdJobs.com, with titles like Director of Wellness, Student Engagement Manager for Leadership Development, Vibrant Campus Community Coordinator;Student Achievement Specialist; Assistant Director of Student Advocacy; and Student Affairs Lead Advisor.  

“The interesting thing about the administrative bloat in higher education is, literally, nobody knows who all these people are or what they’re doing,” says Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University and the author of The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education.

Economist, professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Richard Vedder, clarified the problem. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.”

If this emergent administrative super-structure produced high-quality student outcomes, and provided excellent leadership and value for faculty, the problem of overhead costs might be less pressing. But anecdotal reports and official statements indicate that constraints of such oversight, including from the political accrediting bodies and regulations, reduce faculty autonomy and fail to produce meaningful improvement. 

Devalued Degrees, Disposable Students

It’s possible that far too many students go to college, and certainly far too many go for the wrong reasons. Sky-high costs, long completion times, and lackluster post-graduation returns should give caution to those who trudge dutifully into “13th grade,” with misguided views of how college will pay off.

In 1960, when only 7.7 percent of the U.S. population had a college degree, the earning potential of the people who went to college (for self-selection and value-added reasons) was comparatively high. College graduates were 20 percent of the population by 1990, and nearly 40 percent by 2020. The correlation between college attendance and relative earning potential after college, began to diverge. The payoffs simply aren’t as steep or as certain as they once were.

Federally backed student loans have artificially inflated demand for college entrance, and contributed mightily to rising tuition as has been skillfully explained elsewhere. Where more students have access to more dollars, tuition rises and affordability is not notably improved. Research from the New York Federal Reserve found: “an increase in the federal student loan maximum boosts demand from lower-income students by relaxing their borrowing constraints. In equilibrium, the increased ability to pay raises tuition for all students, and not just for the aid recipients.”

In addition to high per-year costs, a majority of students take more than four years to complete a “four year” degree. The official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3 percent. To keep “graduation rates” at a more respectable 64 percent, government tracks a six year graduation rate, meaning costs could be more than 50 percent higher than families have been conditioned to expect. A quarter of students never graduate at all. Many still carry debt, but without the compensatory salary boost of a college credential. 

Sixty-five percent of undergraduates take on debt to complete their degrees – again, excellent long form analysis on this phenomenon has been written. Median starting wages have stayed static as debts have risen, and not just debt in a broad sense, but high-interest debt to government-monopoly lenders. Student debt isn’t dischargeable in bankruptcy, and missed payments may result in garnishing not just of wages but of opportunities. Students with delinquent federal loans can be denied public jobs, the right to run for office, subsidized housing or health insurance, professional licenses, and dozens more “benefits,” held over the heads of students like a congressionally sanctioned sword of Damocles. 

In Georgia, where I taught at a flagship state university, many students attended their first semester or two of college on the “HOPE scholarship.” When their GPAs dipped below required standards (far more common for engineering or biology students than for sculpture or drama) that funding would disappear instantly. In their pleas for higher grades, or in hushed voices near finals, students would talk about the devastation of “losing Hope”

For many, a semester or two of funded college would be all they’d get to attend, regardless of how much additional debt or sunk costs in housing and books they’d been convinced to take on. Without a degree, that time was wasted, and so were thousands of dollars they could ill-afford to lose. It makes little difference to the university, because another cohort of freshmen – 120,000 every year in Georgia – would be showing up the following August, flush with funding.

Many students go to college believing it is the key to a middle class life. And for most, getting the degree still pays off. But 25 percent of college degrees have a negative return on investment, led by sociology, religious studies, and fine arts. 41 percent of college graduates work in a job that didn’t require a degree. Meanwhile, a chronic shortage of skilled tradespeople has meant highly paid, non-degree, technical jobs going unfilled.

Examining our Options

The culture and structure of higher education, often in response to public policy aimed at “fixing” something, have fundamentally changed the value proposition of a college education. Many young people will benefit, financially, socially, materially, intangibly, by the college experience, but it’s important to be clear-eyed about what that experience – both during and after – will look like. College can’t continue to be treated as a “right for everyone” default option. The costs are simply too high, and the trade-offs too difficult to measure. 

Whether colleges can begin to reverse these trends – treat faculty as skilled professionals, who shape student experience; cut down administrative costs; and improve educational and professional outcomes for their graduates – remains to be seen. As among younger students, educational entrepreneurs are creating alternative paths and customized solutions that may eclipse much of college’s original value proposition. There is reason to be optimistic about education, if not necessarily about traditional universities. 

In the meantime, millions of U-Hauls will fan out to dorms across the county, packed not only with dreams, but uncertainty and unease.