Operating in an artificial economy
If you have paid a college tuition bill recently, perhaps the sticker shock has abated and your children have been good enough to friend you on Facebook so you can see what they are doing on your dime.
What probably still lingers, however, is the desire to ask some pointed questions of the people who are doing the educating. Where does all that money go? And why can’t the price tag fall for a change?
Earlier this year, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities announced with some pride that the average increase in tuition and fees at private institutions this school year would be the smallest in 37 years — 4.3 percent, just a little higher than inflation.
Is this where we are supposed to stand up and cheer?
To get some perspective, I set out to find a college president with an M.B.A. and some experience outside the academy. I found one at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. Its president, Daniel H. Weiss, is an expert in medieval art, but he also worked as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton. So he knows his way around a corporate restructuring.
Lafayette does not have the strongest name recognition and tries to set itself apart through its location near both New York City and Philadelphia, its strong engineering program and liberal arts offerings, and by being one of the smallest colleges to compete in N.C.A.A. Division I athletics.
That it is not a top-tier college by most measures, however, makes Lafayette an excellent test case as it and other private colleges cross the $50,000 annual cost threshold in shaky economic times.
Public universities will always appeal on price, and Wellesley and Harvard are likely to remain oversubscribed forever. But Lafayette and colleges like it could have trouble justifying themselves and their cost soon, and the resistance may not simply pass once the economy improves.
Tuition costs have gone in only one direction — up — during Mr. Weiss’s career. “I genuinely believe that we are at a crossroads here in higher education,” he said. “I think we have reached a ceiling that we’re beginning to bump into.”
Mr. Weiss has not had to make any drastic budget cuts so far. He has frozen many salaries, cut some hours in the student dining halls and scaled back a few building projects.
This will seem rather tame to anyone who has lived through even a medium-grade corporate revamping. “We haven’t been good at cutting when we add,” said Robert Massa, Lafayette’s new vice president for communications, speaking of colleges in general. “We just add.”
Rising tuition and income from endowments have made this possible. But the unique structure of universities has also made it inconvenient to do otherwise. “In some ways, higher education is more like a political environment than the management of a private corporation,” Mr. Weiss said. Except that thanks to tenure, it is difficult to vote anyone out of office. Still, he added, “Alienating some of your faculty members, if you can avoid it, is something you shouldn’t be doing.”
This is just one of the reasons why it is so hard to make big cuts to a college’s budget and reduce tuition in turn. Here are some others:
CUTTING DEPARTMENTS The political challenges with faculty make something as seemingly simple and obvious as cutting expensive and undersubscribed academic departments pretty hard. In fact, Mr. Weiss could not remember the last time Lafayette had done such a thing.
But such cuts are practically inevitable for programs that have fewer students. “Fine arts has studio-based production, so capital and facility costs are high,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the nonprofit group Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, speaking of colleges in general. “Piano tutoring is pretty much one to one in a room with a piano. Pianos are expensive. Agriculture is expensive because of the lab costs, which means a barn.”
An English student, however, is generally a profit center. “They’re paying for the chemistry major and the music major and faculty research,” she said. “They don’t want to talk about it in institutions, because the English department gets mad. The little ugly facts about cross-subsidies are inflammatory, so they get papered over.”
About all Mr. Weiss will say about this is that he agrees that Lafayette needs to do a better job of discriminating between the things it can and cannot do well. He is too good on the politics to single out any department. But there is little doubt that he and administrators like him will need to give up on some foreign languages, minor sciences or parts of the arts pretty soon.
FACULTY PRODUCTIVITY Professors at Lafayette teach five classes a year over two semesters and work with students on their independent research projects. At some colleges and universities, the number of classes is lower and at others it is higher. Couldn’t Lafayette lower costs by demanding that the faculty perform less research and teach one additional class?
“The question is what is the quality of that interaction,” Mr. Weiss said. “Our faculty must have the opportunity to revitalize their teaching through research. If you’re teaching the same old course the same old way every year, you’re not keeping up with the discipline and not able to animate your own teaching with that experience.”
Not every academic agrees. “Am I, for example, as a tenured professor or any tenured faculty member necessarily, or even probably, a better undergraduate teacher because I am doing research?” asked Burton A. Weisbrod, co-author of “Mission and Money: Understanding the University” and an economics professor at Northwestern. “The answer to that is not clear at all.”
Nevertheless, Lafayette is so certain in its convictions that it grants faculty members a year off every six or seven years for a sabbatical. How does a college defend such a practice to parents who have had to work ever harder to pay the growing tuition bill?
“What parents should be looking for is the opportunity for their children to have their lives transformed by what happens inside the classroom and out of it,” Mr. Weiss said. And that cannot come, he continued, without access to faculty members who have had the opportunity to recharge their own intellectual reservoirs. “At the end of the day, parents should want their children to have that experience, and we believe that’s the cost of it.”
Still, parents are helping to subsidize those sabbaticals. So the optics around this are all wrong in the current economic environment, even if this is one of those things no one can change.
ADMINISTRATIVE OVERLOAD Lafayette, like many colleges, spends more on nonfaculty salaries than it does on pay for the teachers. How did that happen? Mr. Weiss uses the evolution of career counseling as an example. He does not recall whether there was a placement office when he was an undergraduate at George Washington University in the 1970s. “Now there is the expectation, and I don’t think it’s misplaced, that students can get help in entering the workplace,” he said. If Lafayette did not create a rigorous support system, he noted, its graduates would be competing with students from other colleges and universities that had done so. “And therefore, we’ve invested very significantly in new administrative staff.”
Security is another area where costs have gone up. Just a quick glance at a dormitory bulletin board gives a sense of the breadth of what security departments deal with these days. One posting offered detailed instructions on what to do when encountering a bat, and an eye-opening piece of literature called “Active Shooter Survival Tips.” (Yes, I have linked to it from the online version of this story.)
THREE YEARS Perhaps the biggest cost-saving measure for private colleges like Lafayette would be to allow students to pay the same price per year but graduate in three years instead of four. Hartwick College in New York is already trying this; 13 students have signed on this fall.
Mr. Weiss said this is worth considering, though he had not looked at how the numbers would work. “Although without sounding in any way defensive, we also do offer time for personal development,” he explained. “And that is part of what college is supposed to be. Not only to learn stuff but to have your life changed. For some students, three years is more than enough, while for others four years is not nearly enough.”
He’s right, of course. Or at least that is how college used to be. The question all of us have to ask now is whether the price of that transformative experience is simply too dear — and whether a basic education ought to be the highest (or maybe only) priority.