Higher-Ed Wonks Are Going Ballistic Over an Op-Ed in ‘The New York Times’

Administrative bloat, not dwindling state funds, is the principal cause of skyrocketing tuition at public colleges across America.

That’s the gist of an op-ed published Saturday in The New York Times by Paul F. Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who briskly dismisses the common refrain that state legislatures’ protracted disinvestment in public university systems is at least a major component of rising costs. Here’s Mr. Campos’s conclusion:

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Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who is quoted in the op-ed, begs to differ. In a blog post Sunday, she writes that, adjusted for inflation, state appropriations per student have declined by 18 percent in the past 30 years, and are 29 percent lower than their 1988-89 peak. Mr. Campos’s only reference to the latter statistic is to acknowledge that appropriations per student have dropped “somewhat” from their peak. But total appropriations, he writes, reached a peak in 2009.

To illustrate why the raw total matters, Mr. Campos provides the following example:

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Matt Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College, writes in Inside Higher Ed that that example doesn’t hold water: “Did the number of public colleges in America double since 1990? No. It remained almost constant. But they’re serving far more students, and doing so with much less help per student.”

Mr. Reed also criticizes the op-ed’s generalization of public higher education, calling the column “a mess, to the extent that it refers ‘public higher education,’ ‘public universities,’ and ‘colleges and universities’ interchangeably.” The column’s ignorance of the community college sector, in general, Mr. Reed writes, is “not a small oversight, given that nearly half of the undergraduate students in America attend one.”

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America and a contributor to the Times‘s Upshot, weighed in to a similar effect on Twitter:



The idea that administrative bloat — most often expressed in references to six-figure salaries — is a contributing factor to rising tuition is nothing new. A report by The Delta Cost Project last year found that new administrative positions were the primary driver in a 28-percent expansion in the higher-ed workforce between 2000 and 2012. The relationship between that increase and tuition hikes is less clear.

Want to learn more about faculty and staff salaries? Check out Chronicle Data, a new interactive tool to track a decade’s worth of salary information at thousands of institutions.

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