Sorry Bernie – Tuition free college can’t ever come back!
In the not too distant past, your average college student could get a degree in four years and walk away with no debt from almost every public university. Whatever the costs where, they could be offset with a summer job and maybe a few hundred bucks from the parents. In the seventies, my entire undergrad costs (room, board, tuition, textbooks, etc.) at a public state university were paid for by summer jobs and modest Social Security survivor benefits due to my mother’s passing away.
Those days are gone. My wife and I have managed to set aside almost $200,000 for our two kids to attend a public university. And we expect our kids will leave after four years with empty bank accounts and probably still some owed debt. The frightening part is they’ll still likely be better off financially than many of their graduating classmates.
So who’s to blame for the spiralling costs? We have the usual villains. Out-of-control spending on big time athletic programs, uncaring governments that funnel money away from education, and of course, all those bloated bureaucracies and armies of administrators that have overgrown universities like unchecked kudzu.
Athletics? Check. Why are many universities now trying to become the equivalent of major league sports franchises, when study after study shows only financial costs for the vast majority?
Politicians? Partial check. Yes, when we look at the percentage of a university’s budget that state or federal governments support. The decline appears dire. But in a number of cases, the dollar amounts have not drastically declined and, indeed, have increased. It is just that it costs far more to operate a university nowadays than it ever did in the past. Which leaves, of course…
The expanded bureaucracy! Yes, but consider this. In the good old days, all you needed to run a university was a small set of buildings: Classrooms, offices, some labs (for the sciency types), libraries, and some spartan dorms. Teaching was a guy lecturing to students in room full of desks. Instructional equipment was a blackboard and box of chalk. Students expected their dorms to have no more luxuries than a bed, desk, chair and lamp. Labs were generally classrooms where sinks replaced the desks.
The modern university, however, has become what would be better described as a University Corporation City. In addition to the bricks & mortar and their professors, here’s what the today’s university has to have:
- Its own police force.
- Student centers with a variety of exercise equipment that set private gyms to shame.
- Computing facilities, wired classrooms and wifi throughout.
- Lab safety officers, with yearly inspections.
- Animal care facilities and compliance officers.
- Modern facilities for chemistry, molecular biology and genomic work. This includes having buildings with state of art air circulation systems and established protocols and procedures for storing, collecting and disposing of hazardous chemicals.
- Buildings with adequate systems that heat in the winter and cool in the summer (In my time as an undergrad, our ‘systems’ were called windows. You opened them in the summer and closed them in the winter.)
- Disability access to all areas of the campus.
- Offices and programs for students with a variety of learning disabilities.
- Offices and programs for improving instruction and adding technology to classrooms.
- Infrastructure to advance and promote diversity, including offices and outreach programs.
- Compliance with all aspects of Title IX, including a cadre of people to handle harassment and violence complaints and issues.
- Preparedness programs for natural disasters (and lately for having an active shooter on campus).
- Training programs (both online and in-person) for dealing with or avoiding: Sexual harassment and bias, lab safety, biohazards, animal care, distraught students, how to properly conduct a job search, earthquakes, cybersecurity, and active shooters. (This list is far from exhaustive!)
- A large facilities complex with 100’s of trained people to repair and take care of all the above 24/7.
- Insurance just in case something happens.
- A large staff of lawyers – just in case something happens that could or does end up in court.
- Development office and staff whose function is to try find private-sector donors for any or all of the above.
Have I left anything out? I’m sure I have.
But let’s be clear – I do NOT pine for the good old days and I am NOT arguing against any of the above. However, all of them cost money. They need non-academic bureaucrats to efficiently run them. If you’ve ever been associated with the professoriate, you will know that having professors be actually entirely in charge of overseeing and running these programs on a day-to-day basis would be a disaster. You need great staff people!!!
In terms of “teaching”, colleges and universities haven’t changed all that much: Students come to class and professors lecture. It is everything else about the academic experience that has been added on, that has caused costs to rise. And it is no surprise, therefore, that now non-academic staff outnumber actual professors.
This is the kicker. Except for those few at the top of the new bureaucracies, the thousands of lower-level staff that do all the heavy lifting to keep universities functioning are generally grossly UNDERPAID!
I suspect if we actually paid our staff what they are worth, we’d have to raise our tuitions another 50%.
So I am all for Bernie Sanders and his call to vastly increase public financing of higher education. But tuition-free or even the low costs that I was so fortunate to have? Those days are gone, along with the universities of yesterday where teaching was the only expectation and duty.