Higher education seems an unlikely site for this kind of speculative bubble. While housing prices are based on what competing buyers are willing to pay, postsecondary education’s price is supposedly linked to its costs (with the exception of the for-profits). But the rapid growth in tuition is mystifying in value terms; no one could argue convincingly the quality of instruction or the market value of a degree has increased ten-fold in the past four decades (though this hasn’t stopped some from trying). So why would universities raise tuition so high so quickly? “Because they can” answers this question for home-sellers out to get the biggest return on their investments, or for-profits out to grab as much Pell Grant money as possible, but it seems an awfully cynical answer when it comes to nonprofit education.
First, where the money hasn’t gone: instruction. As Marc Bousquet, a leading researcher into the changing structures of higher education, wrote in How The University Works (2008):
If you’re enrolled in four college classes right now, you have a pretty good chance that one of the four will be taught by someone who has earned a doctorate and whose teaching, scholarship, and service to the profession has undergone the intensive peer scrutiny associated with the tenure system. In your other three classes, however, you are likely to be taught by someone who has started a degree but not finished it; was hired by a manager, not professional peers; may never publish in the field she is teaching; got into the pool of persons being considered for the job because she was willing to work for wages around the official poverty line (often under the delusion that she could ‘work her way into’ a tenurable position); and does not plan to be working at your institution three years from now.
This is not an improvement; fewer than forty years ago, when the explosive growth in tuition began, these proportions were reversed. Highly represented among the new precarious teachers are graduate students; with so much available debt, universities can force graduate student workers to scrape by on sub-minimum-wage, making them a great source of cheap instructional labor. Fewer tenure-track jobs mean that recent PhDs, overwhelmed with debt, have no choice but to accept insecure adjunct positions with wages kept down by the new crop of graduate student-workers. Rather than producing a better-trained, more professional teaching corps, increased tuition and debt have enabled the opposite.
If overfed teachers aren’t the causes or beneficiaries of increased tuition (as they’ve been depicted of late), then perhaps it’s worth looking up the food chain. As faculty jobs have become increasingly contingent and precarious, administration has become anything but. Formerly, administrators were more or less teachers with added responsibilities; nowadays, they function more like standard corporate managers—and they’re paid like them too. Once a few entrepreneurial schools made this switch, market pressures compelled the rest to follow the high-revenue model, which leads directly to high salaries for in-demand administrators. Even at nonprofit schools, top-level administrators and financial managers pull down six- and seven-figure salaries, more on par with their industry counterparts than with their fellow faculty members. And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges. A bigger administration also consumes a larger portion of available funds, so it’s unsurprising that budget shares for instruction and student services have dipped over the past fifteen years.
When you hire corporate managers, you get managed like a corporation, and the race for tuition dollars and grants from government and private partnerships has become the driving objective of the contemporary university administration. The goal for large state universities and elite private colleges alike has ceased to be (if it ever was) building well-educated citizens; now they hardly even bother to prepare students to assume their places among the ruling class. Instead we have, in Bousquet’s words, “the entrepreneurial urges, vanity, and hobbyhorses of administrators: Digitize the curriculum! Build the best pool/golf course/stadium in the state! Bring more souls to God! Win the all-conference championship!” These expensive projects are all part of another cycle: corporate universities must be competitive in recruiting students who may become rich alumni, so they have to spend on attractive extras, which means they need more revenue, so they need more students paying higher tuition. For-profits aren’t the only ones consumed with selling product. And if a humanities program can’t demonstrate its economic utility to its institution (which can’t afford to haul “dead weight”) and students (who understand the need for marketable degrees), then it faces cuts, the neoliberal management technique par excellence. Students apparently have received the message loud and clear, as business has quickly become the nation’s most popular major.
When President Obama spoke in the State of the Union of the need to send more Americans to college, it was in the context of economic competition with China, phrased as if we ought to produce graduates like steel. As the near-ubiquitous unpaid internship for credit (in which students pay tuition in order to work for free) replaces class time, the bourgeois trade school supplants the academy. Parents understandably worried about their children make sure they never forget about the importance of an attractive résumé. It was easier for students to believe a college education was priceless when it wasn’t bought and sold from every angle.
If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.