Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Ain't that a kick in the asp?

Reader Dick Winzer points me to this AmericanProwler article by John Dunlap on the rising cost of tuition on American campuses. While the overall cost of living has risen by a factor of three since 1977, college education costs have risen by a factor of eight. Dunlap notes that much of the cost comes from the increasing use of "administrative support professionals" or ASPs.

The ASPs are non-teaching career bureaucrats and busybodies -- auditors and counselors, systems analysts and affirmative action officers, institute directors and spin doctors and grant writers -- plus their attendant herds of "administrative assistants" (secretaries).

Between 1975 and 1985, when student enrollments expanded nationwide by 10 percent, non-teaching college support staffs increased by more than 60 percent. Today administrative costs eat up half the annual budgets of most colleges and universities, compared with 27 percent in 1950 and 19 percent in 1930.

So what do we have here at SCSU? We have about a $110 million budget with near $49 million from tuition. On the expenditure side, it's hard to say how much of the $75 million in salaries (plus another $19 million for fringe benefits) is for instruction -- the University can allocate costs in any variety of ways. My office manager, for instance -- is she instructional or not? At any rate, over 80% of our budget is for salaries and benefits, and it's pretty hard to see how more than $40-45 million goes to faculty. As means of comparison, the total supplies and equipment budget of the university is no more than $6 million.

Dunlap continues with discussion of deadwood faculty and unproductive faculty travel and research grants. I'm pretty sure that the total cost of this is less than 2% of the budget here -- it's small beer. But the real reason for increasing costs, in my view at least, comes from this:
On average, today's college degree carries about 70 percent more earning power than a high school diploma, so the students have good reason to be flocking to college, even if the great majority have little interest in the life of the mind.

...The average debt burden of graduating students at my school (Santa Clara University) is about $27,000 -- but that figure applies only to the 64 percent whose financial affairs the school keeps minute tabs on. All the university knows about the remaining 36 percent is that full payment of tuition is somehow coming from them. My informal conversations with students leave me with the impression that only about half the students among the 36 percent come from parents and grandparents who can write checks for the full sticker price. The rest -- about a fifth of all the students -- carry the full burden, with colossal indebtedness and staggering personal sacrifice.

If the return on higher education increases, why wouldn't the price of it increase along with it? Of course it would. And faculty may so value time over money that they prefer not to get higher salaries per se but rather get more release time for research -- and it's argumentative to say whether or not that time is productive. But it appears that much of that additional return on education is being captured by an increasingly dizzying array of ASPs. As I mentioned in the Nichols report summary, this latest wave of diversity discussions is probably going to cost us additional offices of diversity-this and affirmative-action-that, and the costs of this are shifted both forward onto student loans and back onto faculty salaries.