29.1.12

THE THIRD PARTY PROBLEM.

Our President is now threatening to take higher education's last subsidy away.
President Barack Obama fired a warning at the nation’s colleges and universities Friday, threatening to strip their federal aid if they “jack up tuition” every year and to give the money instead to schools showing restraint and value.

Obama can’t proceed without the OK from Congress, where the reaction of Republican lawmakers ranged from muted to skeptical. Higher education leaders worried about the details and the threat of government overreach, and one dismissed it as mere election-year “political theater.”
As if anybody pays list price, and as if posted tuitions and financial aid offers don't adjust to reflect the availability of federal aid. (One notorious illustration: each student on financial aid receives a book allowance that can only be handled by the university's book store.  Shopping for books on Amazon or an online auction is on your own dime.  Evaluate the incentives for publishers.)
Rising tuition costs have been attributed to a variety of factors, among them a decline in state dollars and competition for the best facilities and professors. Washington’s leverage to take on the rising cost of college is limited because American higher education is decentralized, with most student aid following the student. And that’s not counting the legislative gridlock.

“If you were a betting person, you would not bet on it getting done simply because the political atmosphere in Washington is so poisonous,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, an organization that represents colleges in Washington.
Not to mention that university administrators and state legislators will continue their battle over breaches of the social compact or failures to offer higher education.  Regular readers know there are limits to expecting more from less.  The physical and mental health of the faculty suffers, and having ski resorts nearby is insufficient compensation.
I think the real problem lies with the public university presidents who haven’t educated politicians or the public at all about the “effeciencies on campus” they’ve enacted over the past twenty years.  Everyone who reads this blog knows that those “efficiencies” are human beings called adjunct instructors, temporary faculty, or “special” faculty who on many campuses (including mine) comprise now the MAJORITY of faculty, and certainly produce the largest number of student credit hours.  They teach 4-4 loads (or more), and have zero responsibility for research or service to the university.  In my department, they don’t advise students and they can’t sit on graduate student committees.  They are on contracts that expect them only to teach, and they don’t enjoy the protections of tenure.  This is how universities have kept tuition as low as it is. 
The low price, however, is a signal of something other than a productivity gain.  The post I'm quoting accepts the legislature-breaking-social-compact argument, although the consequences of the cost cutting surely look like failures to offer higher education.
But university presidents have held their tongues and played along, and they’ve therefore encouraged citizens and taxpayers to believe that it’s really possible to get something for nothing, to squeeze blood from a stone, and to do more with less.  They have also unforgiveably encouraged the notion that somehow offering free farm clubs to the NBA and the NFL are somehow better “investments” in the quality of education than hiring new tenure-track faculty, purchasing books and journal subscriptions, and improving the quality of their classrooms.  Because they have been happy to exploit the “efficiencies” of casual labor, public university presidents and administrators haven’t told the general public that (for example) the people doing the majority of teaching don’t enjoy the protections of tenure and don’t get credit for anything but their teaching.  They haven’t told the public that there’s no guarantee from year to year that these folks will be around to continue to teach required courses so that students can finish their majors, nor have they explained that these folks might not be available to write leters of recommendation to further their students’ careers.  They also haven’t even begun to attempt an explanation that universities are not just places that pass on knowledge, they’re places that produce new knowledge, new knowledge that’s really important to the quality of teaching that a college or university can offer.  And this is a failure I place squarely at the feet of the current generation of university and college presidents who earn C.E.O.-type salaries while gutting the instructional budget and lecturing the tenure-track faculty about the sacrifices we “all” have to make. 
Against that background, any posturing by the federal government, in which lower federal grants mean lower (average) posted tuitions accompany smaller (average) financial aid packages and a smaller outlay by the federal government with no net effect on individual out-of-pocket costs for students or their parents has no effect on university revenues, or on expense-preference behavior by administrators, whether that manifests itself as Diversity Boondoggles or Beer 'n Circus.

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