Conservatives have a long history of animosity towards higher education, beginning in 1951 with William F. Buckley's screed against secular liberalism and Keynesian economics, God and Man at Yale, and achieving its intellectual apex in 1987 with Allan Bloom's denunciation of the New Left and cultural relativism in The Closing of the American Mind. Both belong to an ugly tradition of populist anti-intellectualism that has come to define the modern Republican party. Now, with soaring tuition and ever-higher student loan debt making headlines, that hostility has been on full display. But college professors—routinely denounced for driving up college costs—don’t deserve the blame.
Between 1990 and 2000, college tuition and fees at public four-year colleges (the kind that educate the majority of undergraduates) increased 48 percent, adjusted for inflation. Faculty compensation (including salary and benefits), meanwhile, increased just 4 percent. Both grew more quickly between 2001 and 2011, but faculty compensation increases (6 percent) were still only a fraction of overall tuition growth (73 percent). The trend at public two-year community colleges has been similar.
Instruction Costs Aren't Driving Spending Growth
At public colleges, instructional costs account for about 30 percent of total spending per student, according to an analysis by FinAid.org's Mark Kantrowitz. But the total spent per student hasn't changed by much. Between 2000 and 2010, real per-student instructional spending grew 8.4 percent at public four-year colleges, in line with increases in most other spending categories. (The outsize increase in the “research” category is skewed by large, research-oriented universities, as opposed to smaller state schools.) At public two-year colleges, real instructional spending actually decreased by 10.7 percent, reflecting an across-the-board decline in per-student spending. (The only exception, again, was in the “research” category.)
The relative number of instructional staff, like faculty and graduate assistants, hasn't increased much either. In fact, most of the full-time staff growth in higher education from 1976 to 2011 comes from the “other professionals” category in the chart below, which includes administrative jobs in human resources, counseling, athletics, accounting, and IT support. All require a bachelor's degree or higher, and pay salaries commensurate with education and experience.
Rising Income Inequality in Academia
Of course, a small number of professors do receive astronomical salaries, helping create the impression that instructional costs are driving tuition increases. Colleges often spend generously to attract particularly talented or accomplished faculty, who could easily make more money working in the private sector. But the number of “superstar” professors is actually relatively small, reflecting growing income inequality within the educational sector itself.
Over the last four decades, the percentage of college instructors teaching full-time has declined precipitously. In the early 1970s, nearly 80 percent of faculty were full-time employees; in 2011, the number was closer to 50 percent. Increasingly, colleges take advantage of part-time, adjunct professors—paid low wages and zero benefits—to subsidize compensation for a handful of prestigious visiting scholars and tenured faculty.
Public Disinvestment in Higher Education
So who is to blame for soaring tuition at public colleges and universities? The answer, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, are the state legislators who have been cutting funding for higher education for at least the last 25 years:
Per-student revenue from state and local governments fell by $2,600, after adjusting for inflation, between 1987 and 2012. During that same period, per-student tuition increased by $2,600. In other words, the entire increase in tuition at public colleges and universities over the last 25 years has gone to make up for declining state and local revenue, leaving no additional funding available to improve programs and services or fund costs that are rising faster than the rate of inflation such as employee health care.
The situation is even worse at public community colleges, which have increased tuition (although less so than four-year schools) to offset declining state funding at the same time that they have had to cut spending on instruction. Put simply, many community colleges are now charging students more for less.
With total enrollment at public two-year colleges up 25 percent in the last 10 years, from 5.7 million in 2000 to 7.1 million in 2009, and enrollment at public four-year colleges up 26 percent, from 6.1 million to 7.7 million, state and local governments should be increasing funding for public higher education, not forcing colleges to raise tuition. Unfortunately, the trend over the last quarter century has been for state legislators to cut funding for public two- and four-year colleges during lean economic times, rather than raise taxes. Students and their families have had little choice but to make up the difference with federal and private loans, driving total student debt above one trillion dollars.
The solution is clear, and it doesn't involve public shaming of teachers or baseless attacks on the societal value of a liberal arts education: a renewed commitment to making state-funded colleges affordable, improving the quality of instruction, and increasing our investment in the next generation.