Why has college gotten so damn expensive?

Interesting. It’ll change, but there’s gonna be a lotta of fights over it…

I am reading it, but you have yet to put together a coherent argument. First, you are saying the problem is that professors don’t teach enough, implying that that is what is making college so expensive. Then you critique the study and research done by liberal arts professors, saying it’s less important and/or meaningful than what hard scientists do. Then you switch to the benefits of online education. The latter argument actually has merit, so I am wondering why you didn’t start with it instead of going on about how Shakespeare has been done to death.

Which again, has nothing to do with the relative merits of liberal arts professors spending time doing outside research. You are likely right that that is the choice that legislators will make. That doesn’t mean it is the prudent decision.

I am fully aware of the nature of pricing in higher ed. What you are neglecting to consider is that if money was their only consideration, elite schools could full their classes with capable people willing to pay full price. The “very rich” are not uncommon. Your point was that eventually, high prices are going to dissuade people from attending elite schools. That is not the case, and likely never will be. Certainly not in the numbers that would make a school like Harvard desperate to lower their sticker price at the risk of not being able to find people to pay it.

Once again, you are missing the point. If you want to present evidence that a certain set of professors teach less, then you need to look at the number of students they have, not the number of classes. When you tell me Dr. Jones has 3 classes and Dr. Smith has 5, its doesn’t necessarily mean Dr. Smith is working harder, or is more productive if has half as many students.

How can they do it all the time, yet can’t dictate it?

Again, why is that a bad thing? Please try to demonstrate that time spent teaching is more productive that time spent researching, studying, and producing work.

Yes, but what you said initially was that professors don’t “profess” enough. That was the original discussion.

Hey buddy, that is not MIT’s first foray into online education. What you are linking to is a NEW initiative. NOT the OpenCourseWare project they started with. That started in 2002, and that I mentioned in my last post. That was when they put their FIRST courses online. It did not have 120k students taking one course AFAICT. But, I guess if you only started paying attention to the field, you might get confused. That said, maybe you should address your own reading comprehension problem.

And Univ. of Phoenix and Kaplan have a bunch of people too. It doesn’t mean much of their degrees don’t signal to employers that you are competent. But regardless, I am not arguing against online education. I fact, I have advocated it in many other threads. What I initially objected to was your supposition that professorial inefficiency was a major cause of rising tuition prices. It’s not, apart from the fact that it is subject to the cost disease labor intensive fields face.

  1. Traditional college has been getting increasingly expensive for decades.

  2. This is a problem, because a great many people – including most state legislatures – see the primary function of non-elite state-run schools (the kind that most students go to) to be providing affordable access to a college education for the citizenry. Thus, #1 violates the schools’ raison d’etre. Disagree all you want, but increasingly, they have the votes.

  3. Instructional costs are a part of the reason for the rise; many of the people who are theoretically hired to teach increasingly spend much of their time doing things other than teaching, forcing schools to hire others to do the teaching.

  4. Especially at non-elite schools, and especially in the social sciences and humanities --but certainly also in things like business and elsewhere – the “things other than teaching” are often trivial exercises in esoteric pseudoscholarship that even other people in their own field do not value (This may be true in the hard sciences, too; I suspect less so, but I don’t know enough to say). Disagree all you want, but increasingly, those who think this way have the votes.

  5. A lot of administrators would love to increase teaching loads, and often say so, but cannot do anything about it. Under the models most universities run on, a chancellor cannot just announce that everyone will take on one more class per semester. The faculty has to sign off, and good luck with that. For this, and other nigh-intractable reasons, even administrators who really want to cut costs for students have a really, really hard time. Faculty have to sign onto most major decisions, and they are very, very resistant to change.

  6. Online education is dramatically cheaper, in part because it has much lower instructional costs: i.e. a lot fewer people with PhDs and the title of “professor” who insist they should be spending half their time doing research.

  7. Everybody who is concerned about #1 also sees #5.

  8. Thus, as the stigma of “online education must always be second rate” fades – with the fading being abetted by elite institutions and virtually every forward thinking leader in higher education – that’s the way things are going at non-elite colleges.

  9. As a consequence, in the future, there will be a lot fewer jobs for people who expect taxpayers to give them 80k a year, summers off, and half their time spent pursuing a research specialization with no clear benefits to the people paying the bills. Top scholars will still get leeway; Larry McProf is going back into the classroom. Again, like it or don’t, but that’s the way things are going.

I hope that was plain enough.

Having the votes doesn’t mean they are right. More importantly, there are demonstrable benefits that accrue as a result of the r&d done at universities. Second, teaching undergrads is not the raison d’etre for all colleges in today’s society.

Part. That said, your reasoning is incorrect, or at least out of focus. The larger reason instruction costs have risen is due to cost disease, and other external factors (eg. healthcare and housing increases), not because professors don’t teach enough. Even so, faculty pay increases have not tracked against tuition increases.

Very few voters have ever bothered to look at that issue IMO. Even so, how can you say with any kind of certainty that much of what is done is pseudo-scholarship given that there doesn’t seem to be any data comparing the utility of research done in academia versus the private sector. For example, are most pharmaceutical drugs investigations “pseudo-scientific” because they lead to nowhere? I think it’s just a very facile critique to point to a few examples and conclude that a large portion of scholarship at that level is without worth. Especially since a large portion of the R&D in this country is done on or with college campuses/colleges.

The state certainly can mandate it. How often do you see that happening?

It has lower instruction costs in aggregate because the costs can be spread over a greater number of people, and/or the work product is scalable. So you have lower marginal costs, and an answer to the cost disease. Even so, those same professors will still likely want to devote as much, or more time to research because that is often what academics want to do.

That said, online education, as it currently exists, is not gonna do the job largely because most universities have not utilized the core competencies of the online medium. MIT OCW was just videos of an actual class. Udacity and other current online schools mostly have videos created specifically for an online audience, but they still represent a failure of imagination. Online courses should be to regular classes as movies are to plays. Movies typically cost a lot of money to make, but they are cheaper to attend. That same calculus can work for schools but, that (logical) step takes substantial resources, cooperation, and uniformity. We are not there yet.

Hence, my repeated indications that I was making factual observations on the state of the industry, that were true whether or not one thought they were morally right, and my specific, repeated indications that I was referring to "non-elite state-run schools (the kind that most students go to)", not “all colleges.”

Pay has not gone up, but teaching loads at many schools have gone down: ergo, less productivity. You’re completely correct about cost disease, but the recommended response to cost disease is not to just throw one’s hands up and say “whaddya gonna do?” It’s to look for ways to create greater productivity.

I’ve repeatedly said weak faculty productivity is only one driver of high tuition, and not the biggest. I’m only “focused” on it because you’ve argued the point.

I don’t give a shit about the private sector. It’s not a competition, and they can spend their money or not as they see fit. I’ve already given you some data on how much research goes into a black hole, in my first cite. There’s not a lot of it, because, stunningly, nobody in the academy seems very motivated to compile data on how valuable their research is or isn’t. The industry just assumes if an article was published somewhere, by definition it was a valuable use of public resources. Surprisingly, this is not the way most well-run organizations do self-assessments.

For one, John Kasich has been trying to do it in Ohio, since they have such huge budget problems. There was political support for Spanier’s moves at Penn State. Most politicians are leery of publicly stepping into those kinds of direct academic decisions, and instead put pressure on Presidents and Chancellors. And if you don’t think that kind of political pressure isn’t being brought to bear, you haven’t talked to many university presidents.

Exactly. I’m glad you’re getting it.

Bully for them. I applaud their ambition. Meanwhile, the new jobs on offer here at Average State will be mostly as course facilitators, instructors, and tutors, and only require a Master’s degree and a desire to teach, but do not include research times. Apply or don’t. If you want a job as a researcher, go apply at State Flagship.

Yes, yes, and the Wright Flyer only went 120 feet, so it sucked, too.

But in all seriousness, I strongly urge you to pass on your critiques to Sebastian Thrun. I am sure he will be devastated to learn that his efforts lack imagination. Please let me know of his answer.

And BTW, you seem to be under the impression that MITx is the same thing as s MIT open courseware; they’re not. It’s not merely materials posted online, but fully designed courses, with tests, assignments, feedback, interactivity, etc. New, different, better (even if tragically not up to your standards). So, despite your quibbles I’ll stick by what I said earlier: MIT’s first free online course drew 120,000 students.

Hence, my statement of opinion that followed. I think that was clear to any discerning reader.

You are making the incorrect assumption that time spent researching is not productive. It may not have immediate tangible benefits to undergrads, but that is only a small part of the picture. The research done is largely how universities increase their perceived value, and thus, are able to increase their revenue. You are only looking at one side of the ledger, and erroneously concluding that the cost of fewer teaching hours for full professors doesn’t have a corresponding benefit in terms of prestige, grants, etc.

Even if your focus is only on tuition, it’s still short-sighted as there are several places like community college where you can gain an education that (generally) don’t have research overhead. Ask yourself why most students aren’t rushing to those places.

Please, you started the argument. I correctly stated that college costs have increased because universities do more, especially wrt research. YOU argued the point in post #28. Saying that all these professors were wasting time and money with unimportant research, which even if true, ignores the basic point that you don’t usually know what will be compelling research before it’s done, and that the percentage of “meaningful” research done in the academy is likely not much different than what you see in other fields. You focused on it, not me.

Then you don’t understand cost disease, as it is completely contingent upon what happens in the private sector. I would also add that most of your other critiques are only substantive based on a comparative analysis.

That was hardly demonstrated by your cite. The OP-ED bemoaned the glut of Literary Studies research done. He also conducts a less rigorous study of that utility by looking at the number of citations via Google Scholar. Do you really think that effectively demonstrates the point you are trying to make? Would LS academics citing one another more often really mean their work has more utility to society?

Why do you assume this is the case? Private colleges certainly have every reason to do this, which is why they do. The same is done at public schools as well. In the sciences, this is largely self-correcting as a failure to bring in research dollars is a good indication your scholarship is not valued as much. There is also the incorrect assumption on your part that administrators are so impressed by any published scholarship that they will hand over tenure w/o looking at the impact or quality of said research. This implies that there is a glut of research that only serves as reputational puffery. There is no evidence that this is the case, and common sense would indicate that such a thing would have a hard time becoming institutionalized. So just like you contention that professors “can’t be fired”, this claim doesn’t pass the smell test.


I am not under that impression as I specifically mention what I was speaking about by name. The failure to comprehend is on your side.

I have a rare perspective in that I’ve been an actual university professor and I’ve been in industry for a couple of decades.

I remember going back to school to visit some old professors, when I still had just my BS degree, and I was sitting in the office of my favorite professor and advisor and we were chatting nicely and having some tea, when he cajoled me to tell him how much I made after 3 years out of college.

When I told him, his face fell, and there was this long silence. After which he said “do you know…you make more than I do, and I’m just 5 years from retirement?”

After 10 years in industry, when I went back to see him (he didn’t retire after all), my salary was more than double his. His only real benefit was that he got a 3 month vacation each summer - sort of; in actuality he had to work about a month of it.

OK, that’s one thing. Now the other.

Later on after more degrees I took a job as a professor (not GTA) where I taught a class that was essentially the same as a class I offer to the industry. The tuition, fees, books, and other materials per student for this class was about $1,500 for a 3 credit-hour class, and I had about 20 students on average. Now that seemed like a lot to me, since about 20 years prior a 3 credit-hour class was about $280 for me. But then I added up how much I would charge per student if I was hired to teach the same class in industry.

It would have been about $32,000 for a class of 20 students, or about $1,600 per student. This is including a 270% multiplier to cover benefits, overheads, reproduction, etc., along with a 25% pure profit on top. If I was happy cutting profit to, say, 10% or so, then I could have undercut the university and still made money.

Clearly in this sample size of 1, there is something wrong with the situation.

One thing in this thread (and others) that irks me. The statement that faculty get the summer off. Based on my experience being married to a research prof, and having many of them as friends, the summers is when they buckle down on research. They typically are not teaching, and the committee meetings are fewer, so they spend the whole summer slamming through data sets, lab work, etc. and trying to all of those publication submissions submitted (or revised and resubmitted).

How odd then that every single professor I knew or worked with who was not actually teaching a class over the summer got at least 2 months off. In fact it was one of the things they bragged most about their job, in lieu of being able to brag about pay - about how they went backpacking in Nepal, spent months at their cabin in the Ozarks, worked on a home addition, or just went on month-long Caribbean “booze cruises”. It’s been my experience and your experience obviously differs.

Why? Colleges have a lot more overhead, expenses, liabilities, requirements, etc., etc. than a person acting independently. How much more of your time would it take if you were people paid by banks, the government, students , parents with credit cards, etc. instead of private companies? What about if you had to pay and/or alter your course to comply with disability laws and other accommodations?

There are so many things to consider. Given the fact that they seem to be paying your university counterpart far less than you were making, it would seem erroneous to think that professorial pay/inefficiency is driving the cost increases in any great way. I can see your larger point is, why can’t universities make money on those margins when I could acting in a similar capacity as a private individual? I think the reasons are varied, but many of the are extrinsic things that are not solely under the purvey of the colleges themselves.

Mine also differs from yours.

At the university I attended (both undergrad and grad), none of this was true for the science and engineering faculty. It was a research university, so maybe that makes a difference, but they were all doing some kind of research through the summer and continually working on getting more grants to fund their work. On the other hand, their research grants did allow them to have better pay than other faculty members. The only people who took any kind of significant time off during the year were emeritus faculty who usually had office space (not insignificant when space was tight) but not much else.

The music faculty didn’t have explicit research, but they did tend to arrange to teach master classes and such through the summer to supplement their (not very good) pay. They also tried to get a few students to stick around through the summer to justify some things they did.

No clue what the humanities and social science folks did.

As for undercutting the university, of course you can undercut the university. The fees you charge don’t have to go directly towards the maintenance and construction of buildings, support personnel (janitors, administrative assistants, campus police, etc), etc. Tuition does all of that. When you teach on a contract basis in industry, you don’t have to pay for any of the infrastructure they already have. In a university, the fees reflect those infrastructure costs.

It’s the same with the company I work for. It’s VASTLY cheaper to hire an outside consultant to come in and teach an occasional course than to have somebody on staff to do it. We do have full time trainers, but we don’t have them teach those specialty courses, either. It would be more expensive for us to have staff focus on those specialty courses than hire outside contractors to teach. Kind of the difference between having one of your normal schmoes teach Math 101 and needing to pay a full time staffer for the occasional course in the Mathematics of Quantum Neutrino Fields.

The related business concept is vertical integration. My company does contract work for other, larger companies. It’s cheaper for them to hire us to do it, rather than have dedicated staff (even if it’s work that needs to be done continually through the year). Because we specialize, we can do it better than them and more efficiently and still turn a profit, while it would be MORE expensive for our client companies to do it with (usually) worse results.

I’m not a person working independently, this is working for a Fortune 500 Company with 5-figure employment.

It’s not necessarily cheap to be paid by a private company. It costs $1,000 in accounting time to set up each class, and about another $1,000 to do the invoicing and processing - per class. Legal review of the contract for each class can cost $500-$1,000.

Can you give an example of a way in which a non-lab course has to comply with disability laws in such a way that it costs more than a university? Our building is ADA compliant. We have sign language interpreters. We’re wheelchair accessible. We carry 9-figure general liability and professional liability insurance. What other costs am I not including? Keeping in mind I actually have more than a decade of experience teaching hundreds of these classes here and in 16 different countries, and I’ve made a profit on every single class.

No my larger point was there is something wrong with the system but I don’t have the knowledge or experience to know what it is. There appears to be a clear inefficiency on the side of the university, and it would be beneficial to explore what exactly that is.

OR, perhaps universities could, to save some costs for their students, offer more industry-based classes as credit classes for them to take. This gives the students a benefit from learning from industry experts current in the field, as well as increasing their exposure to the “real world.” And if it costs the students less…what’s the downside? I’m not talking about wholesale replacement of university classes, but increasing external classes where it makes sense.

Ah, my mistake. Obviously some of what I said will not be applicable. That said, how intimately involved with your company’s finances are you? What kind of profit to they make in total? How much does it cost them to acquire employees? Does the field you are in require a lot of capital expenditures to remain current? It’s possible what you do is more profitable to a university (and your employer) than a biology class, for example. But without knowing all that, I don’t want to speculate too much.

There is also the important point that students don’t actually pay the sticker price/credit hour. One in three students pays sticker price.

Using those rough numbers, would your classes be profitable if the students paid half as much?

Does the profit you make translate to a similar profit company wide? As far as things that most universities have to do that companies generally don’t, one thing is having a private police force, an infirmary, operating shuttle buses, having sports teams, etc. Not every school has all of those things, but many do.

I think there is, but the problems are often extrinsic. Some of the costs issues can be addressed though online education and other things, but some of can’t. More importantly, I question how dire an emergency this really is. The vast majority of studies indicate a college degree still have a positive economic return. Most students can fund their college education if they need to via several different means. I just wonder how focused we should be on helping the people who are most inclined to be able to provide for themselves already. AFAICT, we are not at a point where many talented students eschew college because of the cost. As much as I value education for education’s sake, I am not sure the cost needs to be so low that people don’t put serious thought into the benefits they will gain from choosing a particular choice. In my opinion, the far more dire emergency are the people who don’t make it to college, not the ones who are annoyed to be burdened with heavy student loans upon graduating.

No downside in my book, but I don’t think industry-based classes are options for people in most fields.

The work-ethic among tenured professors is questionable at best, and it permeates the whole academic atmosphere. At my law school we have two sections of a first year class: one taught by a competent professor, the other taught by a terrible professor. They just hired a new professor to teach one section, but instead of shifting (or God forbid what every other industry does: FIRE) the terrible professor, they replaced the competent professor with the new guy.

A fellow student said that it needed done because the competent professor was carrying “more of a workload than any other professor in the school.” If he continued teaching this course, he would have been in the classroom 12 hours per week. As it is now, next semester, he will be in the classroom 9 hours per week.

This is not work in the fucking coal mines. This is teaching a subject that this man has taught for years. Why is 12 hours of work per week so exhausting that his schedule needs to be cut?

In short, academia just doesn’t live in the real world or respond to real world situations. The bloated administration only cares about funding and pays no attention to providing value to their customers because of third party payment in the form of loans. They lie about job statistics to induce enrollment and put out marketing campaigns that are all but fraudulent.

I agree with posters that something will happen soon. People aren’t going to keep going 6 figures in debt to no longer be prepared for jobs in the real world.

That 270% total overhead includes training budgets, etc. and is a fair profit. I can’t say much more than that.

Probably not…it depends. I mean I’m copping out here in that I’m thinking I might be able to shave costs if the classes were repetitive like my university classes were. My industry-based classes require large amounts of new material development each year, to accommodate changes in legal requirements, engineering standards, and the state of the industry. So I’ll say a guarded “probably not.”

These are good points, and I don’t know the answer.

Allow me please to digress into another benefit of industry-based classes - current events. Recently I was invited to sit in the class of a senior professor who was giving a lecture on the history of the power industry, and he did an excellent job overall (my purpose there was to provide a critique, being a known industry expert attached to the university). He finished his lecture on the history of the power industry…at 1993. Afterwards I asked him “But…you missed the whole Enron and deregulation debacle, you missed fracking, you missed most of the CAA impacts, you missed the huge wind and solar developments…why?” and he said “well, those are current events, and the students probably know all of them.” Then I said “Jeff, some of these students weren’t even born when you last updated this lecture” and he sort of grimaced and said “yeah, well, maybe I should add a slide or two…” The advantage of having private companies contribute to coursework is that we can’t get away with not being current. If we present old, shopworn material year after year we go out of business, and some of what’s presented in university is just that - ancient, obsolete information. This may not matter in some fields at some levels, but in science is really does matter.

I’m not trying to tell you what you already know, just reinforcing my point that I see a lot of benefit to a synergy between university and private business (plus I’d like the extra work…I really enjoy teaching).

I agree. I think your anecdote is instructive, but not knowing the whole context, I’ll trust your judgment that the omission was substantive. That said, there are many people at universities that are very current. If you google, “fracking research”, many of the results are to university studies done on the matter. So the expertise is there at many universities, even if it doesn’t always filter into the classroom. But I agree in principle that that is certainly something industry could help with.

I think it’s also worth noting that many research universities do, in fact, cooperate with the private sector. Here is a good article about Stanford’s cozy relationship with Silicon Valley. The only issue is that you don’t want to be beholden to private interests, but that certainly shouldn’t represent an impenetrable barrier.

I don’t think you are, and I appreciate hearing about your experiences. Can I ask you why you have decided not to teach full-time if you like it so much? Don’t mean to impose, just curious. Seems like you probably have a knack for it.

You said it was a WAG, but before I cut you too much slack, do you have figures to back the “more people are going to college” statement up? And are those absolute numbers?

We are in the decline after the Baby Boom, and unless the percentage of students per population is increasing significantly, this might not be true.

I just happened to see the enrollment in my high school a few years ago, and it is only 40% of the Baby Boom years. High school is what feeds colleges, so it makes me wonder.

College attendance rates as a percentage are at an all-time high. Graduate schools rates have also gone up considerably. This site also says the following:

I can’t find stats going back too far, but enrollment seems to have doubled since the 70’s. I would doubt it was higher prior. This site says that in 2005, regular school enrollment exceeded that in the baby boom years. Seeing as the rates of college enrollment are much higher today, it would stand to reason that more people are going to college now.

If the enrollment was 49.5 mill in 2003, and 48.7 mill in 1970, I’d say it held pretty steady for 33 years, at least comparing the end of the era with the beginning.

Work =/= time in the classroom. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. What about all the other stuff professors do?

– Prep for each class (usually at least an hour for every hour you’re spending in the classroom, even if you’ve taught the class before – re-reading material, tweaking little things, updating lectures to reflect the current state of the field).

– Grading. And grading and grading and grading. (Even if the professor is lucky enough to have TAs, somebody has to manage the TAs and make sure they’re all on the same page about grading standards.)

– Committee meetings, department meetings, bureaucratic busywork of various sorts (plus the occasional genuinely useful service responsibility).

– Office hours, individual meetings with students, serving on thesis committees.

– Research (if there’s any time left over).

Trust me, the vast majority of work professors do does not take place in the classroom. It may be invisible to the students, but that doesn’t make it any less real.