College: What Are You Paying For?

It’s late August, and young adults across the country are headed to college, and parents across the country are writing large tuition checks.

Americans worry incessantly about the inflation in medical costs – and with good reason. But over the past fifteen years, the inflation in college and university costs has been even greater. Colleges and universities across the country have been raising tuition at a rate four times faster than the overall inflation rate.

What does that money pay for? A little thought experiment may help. Let’s imagine, for a moment, educational institutions in which the buildings are modest and fully financed so that, not only are the costs of their construction paid off, but their financing has been sufficient to cover depreciation and maintenance. Since such financing is rarely included in the costs of new buildings. When they are opened (to great fanfare and praise for administrators), what should be an asset becomes a liability and a further drain on general operating expenses.

But let’s say the buildings are fully financed and that the endowment has been developed sufficiently to cover operating expenses. What, then, on our little ideally financed campus, would the basic costs of instruction be? Let’s say we set the salary for faculty at $75,000 per year, which is near the current average. To that rather generous salary, we’ll add another 20 percent to pay for benefits – also generous, but this is what private contractors are required by the government to put aside. The total would be $90,000 dollars per year. Let’s say that we asked our professors to teach three classes per semester, with an average of twenty students per class (a low number for many college classes). In that case, faculty members would be teaching roughly 120 students per year.

Here’s where it gets interesting. To make the $90,000 we need to pay our faculty – and remember, we’ve got the lights and electricity and all the rest taken care of – we would only need to charge each student $750 per course. If each student took five courses per semester, tuition per student would be $3,750 per semester or $7,500 per year. That’s it.

Now if you’re paying more than $7,500 per year in tuition – and everyone is – what, you might wonder, is all the rest of the money being used for? I teach at a university, and I don’t know. Nor do any of my colleagues. We regularly ask to inspect the budget figures, but they are not forthcoming.

Many faculty members across the country would ask their institution to justify each dollar added to that $7,500 per year in tuition based upon a rigorous analysis of whether it would (a) bring about a substantial educational benefit for the student, and (b) be worth the added debt burden to their future. But faculty aren’t in charge. The modern university has become a corporation where the president/CEO is in charge and members of the faculty are viewed as “labor” (or simply as “labor costs”).

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At many institutions, a host of administrative positions has sprung up with names like Chief Athletics Administrator, Chief Development/Advancement Officer, Chief Enrollment Management Officer, Chief Extension/Engagement Officer, Chief External Affairs Officer, Chief Human Resources Officer, Chief Information/IT Officer, Chief Student Affairs/Campus Life Officer. The list goes on and on – Chief Audit Officer, Chief Health Affairs Officer, Chief Institutional Planning Officer, Chief Institutional Research Officer. And we haven’t reached anyone who deals with actual academics yet.

And, of course, each one of these “chief” officers and/or vice presidents needs his or her own staff of associate bureaucrats and administrative assistants. And no institution worth its salt would pay a “vice president” less than a six-figure salary. Little wonder, then, that administrators are filling more classes with part-time “adjunct” faculty who are paid as little as $1800 dollars to teach a course from which the university takes in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

All this information simply raises the question: What are you paying for? If the system is not serving those it is supposed to serve – the students – then we should ask what drives the current system. Why hasn’t the market corrected the aberrations?

In one sense, perhaps it has. Perhaps what consumers want is a “prestige” institution with all the bells and whistles, with climbing walls and luxury dorms, with gleaming glass towers and wood paneled offices – a cross between Harvard and Disney World – with international excursions and a winning football team.

If so, I hope these same consumers aren’t fooling themselves into thinking that they’re “investing” in “education.” They’re “spending” to get a college “experience,” and the bills will eventually come due. So too will the costs of not having a real education.

I have tremendous admiration for parents who sacrifice so their sons or daughters can go to college. Since I want them to get value for their money, I have to say I’ve never seen so many sensible people write a check for so much money not knowing what they’re paying for. Who would write a check for $50,000 for a car not knowing whether it worked or not? And yet plenty of parents write checks for amounts in excess of that having no idea whether their children are really being taught to think clearly, read analytically, do math competently, and write literate prose.

What are you paying for? Prestige? Social Life? Fine. But if you want a real education that serves you for an entire life of the sort that a Catholic liberal arts education provides, you will have to shop carefully and become a much wiser consumer than many of your peers.

We, the faculty, would be grateful if you did because only if we get wiser consumers who force institutions to provide real educational value for students are we going to get the reforms we need. The first step is for parents and students to think more deeply about what real “educational value” is and what a university education is for.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.