Education Costs: Pot, Meet Kettle

In today’s tough economy, more people are questioning why colleges cost so much. Many blame administrative bloat and inefficiency. Over the past 20 years, as enrollment has grown by 40 percent, the number of support-staff members on campuses has doubled, according to a report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

But we must place higher education in context. It’s important to recognize that growth in support staff compared with enrollment reflects a set of natural responses to shocks that are broadly affecting many other industries as well.

As defined in the center’s report, “support staff” comprises many job categories. Two of the important ones are computer specialists and workers in business and financial operations. Both types of employees occupy an increasingly important role in colleges and in the economy as a whole. They also represent highly educated workers.

College Administrations Are Too Bloated? Compared With What?, Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman

I don’t want to pretend that I know these guys’ work; I don’t. They apparently have a book coming out about college costs, and it’s hard to be critical before the book’s done. But when someone seems to try to justify the rising costs of education by comparing it to the rising cost of dentistry, red flags go up.

On the other hand, the comparison may be apt in ways not explored in this piece (and potentially explored in the book). One reason, for example, that public health care systems are cheaper is that they don’t have so many administrative costs. And one of the most important of those administrative costs are the high salaries of administrators.

I think the authors are right to suggest that at least some of the rising costs of education has to do with all of the new things we expect education to do. Like medicine (and presumably dentistry) technology is driving up the costs. Like medicine, too, if we keep letting the costs of education rise, we will pay an enormous price. I don’ think education costs have to keep rising.

Like private health care, I think the salaries of administrators and, too often, academic stars, are absurdly inflated. Too often, universities now work as public funded research wings for all sorts of industries. The costs of education, like the costs of medical care, are marbled throughout the system, and it’ll take trimming to get it out. I hope the books shows us how.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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