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Tuition is rising because colleges are shoveling money to programs like water polo

Published: Monday, Jan. 14 2013 10:10 a.m. MST

A recent report by the Wall Street Journal has renewed interest in the proliferation of administrative positions at universities, especially in light of the still sharply climbing tuition costs. Is this a real problem?

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Not long ago, political science professor Ben Ginsberg welcomed a freshman and his parents to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. As they talked, the parents confided that one reason they chose Johns Hopkins was because of its strength in water polo.

“Now, I confessed I didn’t know we had a water polo team,” Ginsberg said, “I said that was nice, but don’t take too much time with that because it could affect your grades.”

The parents were quite shocked. A dean at the advisement center, they responded, had urged the incoming students to “pursue your passions.”

“Well if one of your passions happens to be calculus,” Ginsberg answers, “then you should pursue it, but water polo is another matter.”

Four years later, Ginsberg related, the kid was graduating. “He had an abysmal grade point average, though he was quite a star on our water polo team, and the parents asked me, ‘What should we do now?’”

In Ginsberg’s mind, that water polo player captures a core problem with American higher education and a key reason why tuition has skyrocketed. Ginsberg grew so concerned that, like any good academic, he wrote a book, “The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters.”

Ginsberg is only one voice in the chorus. Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal published a widely discussed article on administrative bloat, this one focused on the University of Minnesota.

“The number of employees hired by colleges and universities to manage or administer people, programs and regulations increased 50 percent faster than the number of instructors between 2001 and 2011,” the WSJ article asserted, adding that this is “part of the reason that tuition, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, has risen even faster than health-care costs.”

Concerns over bloat are not new. In 2009, University of North Carolina President Erskine Bowles responded in an email to a Bain & Co. indictment of administrative expansion on the 17 UNC campuses, calling the report “an absolute embarrassment — and we brought it all on ourselves.”

Bowles then told administrators that in the coming budget talks “we will be looking for absolute PROOF that you have focused FIRST on administrative reductions and solid evidence that you have taken steps to shore up the academic core.”

The whys and wherefores are less obvious. Explanations range from ever-increasing regulatory costs, a more diverse and more needy student body, to evolving educational objectives that push outside the classroom. Whatever the explanation, implications for parents and students are weighty. There are growing questions on how to measure higher education payoffs, and some observers have pegged the sector as the next economic bubble. At the core of the conflict lie disputes over the very purpose of higher education.

Feisty exchanges

Ginsberg has raised a lot of hackles. He mocks proliferating “deanlets” and “deanlings,” or mid-level administrators. Many of these, he argues, have increasingly come to see the campus as a four-year pleasure cruise or summer camp, rather than a boot camp for research and learning.

Administrators are clearly feeling the pressure. “I was giving a talk at a college in Iowa, and the provost actually got up and walked out in a huff,” Ginsberg said, adding that he has received emails from several administrators “on their personal accounts, saying they totally agree with me but can’t say it.”

Two years ago, Jay P. Greene, a professor at the University of Arkansas, wrote a report for Arizona’s Goldwater Institute that studied metastasizing administrators in 200 institutions.

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