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

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 1:35 a.m. MDT

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? (slapstix55) 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? (slapstix55)

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?’”

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? (let ideas compete via Flickr) 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? (let ideas compete via Flickr)

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.

Greene used Arizona State University as central illustration, and ASU’s president was not amused. He was, Greene said, was “quite nasty” and “shockingly unscholarly” in response. “He didn’t like the our report, so he sent a letter to my chancellor accusing me of misconduct. It was really quite something.”

Minnesota responds

The Wall Street Journal article also sparked push back, albeit less combative.

After it appeared, Charles Lane summarized it in a Washington Post column. Among his indictments, Lane, an editorial writer for the Post, wrote that in the past decade, “Minnesota’s administrative payroll has gone up three times as fast as the teaching payroll, and twice as fast as student enrollment.”

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler responded to Lane with a letter, arguing that UM “has reduced the per capita cost of educating students by 13 percent since 2000.”

Kaler blamed tuition hikes on “stunning state disinvestment,” as states floundering in red ink slashed outlays to state colleges. He also argued that regulation, “improving the student experience,” and “managing complex technology” all require administrative staff.

Conflict and suspicion

With provosts walking out on speeches and university presidents lashing out at researchers, Kaler’s response was tame and dignified. But tensions are obviously high, and this is exactly what political scientist James Q. Wilson predicted in 1989.

In his book, "Bureaucracy," Wilson distinguished agencies with clear goals and means of measuring them from “coping agency,” which can neither measure an outcome nor really observe a process. Education was his prime example.

“Coping agencies rarely can develop the sense of mission and the external support necessary for their management to be left in career hands,” Wilson wrote in “Bureaucracy.” “These organizations can point to neither unambiguous accomplishments nor visible activity; as a result, they are likely to be enmeshed in controversy about their goals and engulfed in suspicion about their means.”

Student services

Much of the dispute hinges on Kaler’s phrase, “improving the student experience.”

Greene’s dispute with Arizona State centered largely on categories. In its official response, available online, ASU insisted that Greene had conflated key distinctions in “administration,” “student services” and “other professionals” categories.

The “other professionals” category, ASU argued, includes those who “support our students’ academic experience: academic advisers, financial aid counselors, career counselors, reference librarians, laboratory staff and literally hundreds of people who have nothing to do with the management of the institution. The effect is to inflate the number of staff categorized as administrators and distort the true picture.”

Greene said he was transparent in his categories and that he simply combined groups to distinguish between direct classroom investments and all things outside the classroom. Greene does not dispute the list of “student services” offered by ASU, but views it as part of the problem.

“Universities have expanded the services they offer to include everything,” Greene said. “Paid staff run a variety of services because the mission of the university has expanded beyond its core mission of teaching and research to include a variety of services, entertainment and business ventures that have no obvious connection.”

"Universities have gotten into the venture capital business," Greene said, "They see themselves as business incubators. My guess is they are very bad at it." Greene points to Gordon Gee from Ohio State University, who says Ohio State is the "economic engine of Ohio."

Another cost-driving distraction, Greene said, is the ever-richer on-campus experience. And, of course, students love it. He cites as an example service staff that help run the Greek fraternity and sorority system. Sure enough, ASU’s website lists three full-time staff overseeing Greeks, including two “coordinators” and one “associate director.”

Holistic experiences

“There is evidence to suggest that these sorts of co-curricular activities and holistic experiences are part of education,” said Carl Moses, provost at Susquehanna College in Pennsylvania. Moses acknowledges that not all higher education fits this model, with off-campus commuter state schools and for-profit universities focusing strictly on the classroom.

“We are focused on the preparation of students for their lives after college,” Moses said. Susquehanna University tries to demonstrate how a student’s experiences contribute to success in graduate school or jobs after graduation, but Moses acknowledges this is not easy.

“One of the things we struggle with all the time is trying to assess goals that are difficult to quantify.” Moses points back to the 19th century university model, which viewed liberal education as an end in itself. “That was probably OK to say in the 19th century,” Moses said, at a time when most college students were elites who enjoyed leisure and security. “But in the 21st century, we can’t look on higher education that way.”

With education becoming more expensive and with increasingly diverse student bodies, Moses acknowledges that along with student debt burdens rising, bang for buck becomes paramount.

“Those are good questions, and higher education as a sector should be welcoming those questions.” Moses hopes the current gap in the link between investment and payoff in higher education is just a learning curve. “We haven’t developed the muscles yet.”

Other causes

Moses sees the dispute over the core purpose of higher education as “related but separable” from the question of administrative bloat.

A host of modern burdens account for heightened administrative costs, Moses said, including information technology, regulatory burdens and research demands on faculty all making the old model of small staff untenable.

It’s hard to find a government agency that does not on some level impose burdens on a university, Moses said, and responding to this requires ever-larger staff.

Likewise, Ginsberg’s hope of restoring key governance and student-mentoring functions to faculty is questionable, he said. “Back then it was not at all uncommon for a faculty member to coach the tennis team,” Moses said.

Moses also points to the increasing diversity of the student body as another reason for larger support staff, many with distinctive challenges or needs, including students who are underprepared academically or who have emotional or physical challenges. “This is certainly another expectation of society that colleges expand access and opportunity. That’s all to the good, but it creates challenges.”

Looking back to the 1950s, Moses said, “I find it very difficult to understand how institutions could function in the modern environment with the same organizational structures.”

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company