What to Say When Your University Comes Begging for Money

Earlier this year, I got an e-mail from my law school, inviting me to a “mock cocktail” gathering where I would learn the ins and outs of networking. The invite promised I would be evaluated by alumni and told how to “navigate the perils and pitfalls of a cocktail reception.” Another e-mail arrived soon after, inviting me to a “Business Dress Program,” in which “student models will showcase the DOs and DON’Ts of office and interview attire … , while Macy’s personal shoppers will explain what are the best choices for your body type and style.” Oh, and transportation would be provided to and from Macy’s. These two events are unremarkable in the parade of elaborately choreographed and, one imagines, lavishly expensive events coordinated by well-paid, highly credentialed administrators. Such is a taken-for-granted aspect of life at colleges and universities across the country.

During a given week at the University of Chicago Law School there will be numerous speakers and panel discussions—one to four a day—in which free lunch is provided to all attendees, often with plenty of food left over. There will most likely be a Wednesday Wellness session, which has included events like a professionally led yoga class; there will be free food and drink every Wednesday morning and Friday afternoon; groups of students will invite professors out to lunch, which will kindly be paid for by the law school. I might make an appointment with one of nine career-services staff members, all of whom have advanced degrees from excellent universities. I might stop by the library, which by my count has a staff of 25.  I will very likely play racquetball at one of the school’s two exceptionally well-maintained gyms, and will get there by walking across the school’s exceptionally well-maintained quadrangle, passing numerous exceptionally well-financed construction projects.

Much has been made about the rising costs of tuition at colleges and professional schools across the country, so my experience is hardly novel. What is truly extraordinary though is just how much money is spent on things that don’t meaningfully improve students’ well-being.

When I was an undergraduate at Chicago, I worked part time at the college’s event-planning office, which organized, among other things, Orientation and Family Weekend. There were four full-time employees (now there are five), and eight or nine part-time student employees. The head of the office had a master’s degree from Harvard and had recently obtained a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania—that netted her a promotion in title and presumably a pay bump. Another staff member had a master’s degree, and the two remaining had bachelor’s from top-ranked universities. Our events were meticulously planned, featuring full-color brochures and handsome programs, often accompanied by free food, free T-shirts, free water bottles, and free coffee mugs. At some point, it dawned on me: Do we really need to pay for advanced degrees and very intelligent people to plan events? Do we really need all this “free” stuff?

Lest one think the University of Chicago is an outlier, it’s become abundantly clear that the increase in college tuition over the past decade has come from two major sources: more administrators and more buildings.

Two decades ago, when the number of administrators was a fraction of what it is now, it’s almost hard to imagine how any university functioned. Who planned Orientation and Family Weekend? Who offered career and academic counseling? Who ran the diversity centers and wellness centers and community-engagement centers? How did the athletic department function while led by someone lacking an advanced degree?

And yet they managed. Is anyone seriously contending that the quality of a university education has increased at the same rate as tuition? It’s not that none of this proliferation of administrators, buildings, and free stuff is useful; some of it may even be cost-justified. The problem is that no one seems to consider cost, no one wonders whether less money should be spent rather than tuition raised, no clear-headed college president stops and asks, “When is enough, enough?”

The vast majority of colleges and universities are nonprofits, yet in some sense they are very much profit-driven; it’s just that profit is defined differently. It’s not money given to shareholders; instead, it’s money for new buildings, a nicer campus, more free stuff, and more administrators with higher salaries. It’s hardly a coincidence that the administrators who make such budget decisions are also the ones who stand to benefit. Staff members enjoy the perks of a cash-flush workplace alongside a beautiful campus with state-of-the-art facilities. A high-ranking administrator who expands the size of his staff benefits because he has simultaneously increased his own job responsibility (more employees to supervise), and in turn may be able to justify a pay bump. And wouldn’t you know it, salaries of college presidents have been rising at a remarkable clip.

All that being said, students deserve part of the blame here, too. Not unlike the American taxpayer, we want more stuff at a lower price. Sounds great! Sadly it’s impossible, unless by “lower price,” we mean “delayed, but higher price in the form of loans that we’ll be paying back for decades.”

Administrators are not going to do anything about this problem—after all, they are the problem. Goodness knows, despite a State of the Union address promising otherwise, the federal government isn’t likely to do anything. (In fact, the government has probably contributed to the problem.) That means it’s up to us. My challenge to fellow students and alumni is a simple one: Don’t donate a penny to your college or alma mater unless it freezes tuition in real dollars without cutting financial aid. It’s a simple premise that could lead to a powerful result: a movement, finally, to stop the insane growth of college costs.

Of course there may be some complications. Colleges want to compete with each other on perks; administrators won’t like it; wealthier families may not like it; colleges don’t want to lose out on the U.S. News & World Report rat race, which mind-bogglingly penalizes institutions for spending less per student.

These concerns can be overcome. Ultimately, perhaps what’s been wrong with our search for answers to this cost conundrum is the premise: that the solution must come from the top down. For decades, those at the top have been perpetuating this problem; maybe, then, the solution needs to start from the bottom up, with us.

Matt Barnum is a student at the University of Chicago Law School.

Clarification, 8:18 p.m., 7/31/2013: This article originally stated that a college could receive a higher score on the U.S. News rankings by giving students financial aid equal to the amount that it raises tuition. However, while financial aid is a factor in U.S. News rankings of law schools, it is not a factor in the rankings of undergraduate colleges, as a commenter pointed out. The statement about financial aid has been removed to reflect that.

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