"For most of the 1980s, the rocketing costs of a college education looked like the trajectory of the space shuttle," says Robert Moskowitz in Investor's Business Daily. In 1979, the average four-year costs at a public college equaled 36 percent of the typical family's annual income, while the average price of a bachelor's degree at a private college equaled 84 percent of yearly family income. By 1994, those figures had jumped to 60 percent and 156 percent, as the rise in college prices outpaced the rise in family incomes.
Between 1980 and 1993, with the Consumer Price Index increasing by 75 percent, tuition rose by 211 percent at public colleges and by 242 percent at private colleges. What's driving up these prices is a surge in faculty compensation, a plethora of federal mandates, and an escalation in administrative personnel.
Since 1980, the average salary of professors at private colleges increased at nearly double the rate of inflation, while the salaries of professors at public universities outstripped inflation by 44 percent during the same period. In addition, as sabbaticals, travel, bonuses, and retirement packages became more generous, fringe benefits more than doubled in the past decade.
Faculty and staff at Pennsylvania's 18 state-related and state-owned universities were compensated $28.4 million for sabbaticals and $75.9 million for travel in 1994 - nearly $6 million per school - in addition to receiving $28.6 million in free or discounted tuition for their dependents.
Between 1975 and 1985, the number of professional support personnel in colleges - deans, vice presidents, equity officers, and various other planners - expanded six times faster than the number of students. At public universities, administrative costs per student are rising 19 percent annually, 4 times as fast as spending on teaching. This campus bureaucracy is now consuming nearly half of every instructional dollar.
Administrators explain that arduous government regulations have mandated much of this escalation in bureaucracy. Government grants and accreditation, for instance, have increasingly been linked to the "appropriate" sexual, racial, and ethnic diversity on campus.
It's not cheap to recruit minority faculty, increase student diversity, or banish Eurocentric biases from the curriculum. Such adjustments require costly surveys, departmental studies, administrative meetings, curriculum planners, and new faculty.
English majors at Georgetown University, no longer required to read Shakespeare, can instead lift their consciousness in courses like "Women, Revolution, and the Media." By the late 1980s, reports Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, "it was possible to graduate from 78 percent of the nation's colleges and universities without taking a course in the history of Western civilization; 38 percent without taking any history course; 45 percent without taking an American or English literature course; 77 percent without taking a foreign language course; 41 percent without taking a mathematics course; and 33 percent without studying the natural or physical sciences."
The bottom line? Students are increasingly paying more for less - gliding through easy courses and receiving top grades without ever seeing a real professor, especially at the larger universities. At the University of North Carolina, a 1992 study shows that two-thirds of undergraduate classrooms were staffed by part-time faculty and graduate students.
It's a system, too often, where students pretend to learn while other students pretend to teach them. At the close of the semester, an "A" or "B" appears on the student's transcripts to confirm that above-average teaching and learning has occurred. It's like the collectivist days in Poland when the workers pretended to work and the party bosses pretended to pay them.
What drives much of the absenteeism by professors are compensation systems that disregard teaching performance while rewarding publications of dubious significance and attendance at conferences. Junior professors, seeking tenure, abandon classrooms to allocate time to research, conferences, and publishing, even if they have nothing unique to investigate or valuable to say or write.
Resistance to evaluation
Rejecting the concept that students can fairly evaluate their classroom performance, most professors prefer their annual pay hikes to be automatic or linked to a junket to the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association where they might witness something like the unveiling of Moby Dick's shortcomings: "There's not a woman in his book, the plot hinges on unkindness to animals," proclaimed a panelist at a recent Modern Language conference, "and the black characters mostly drown by chapter 29."
In seeking to reform this system, college officials, unlike chief executives in the business sector, face a tenured work force that's protected from downsizing and generally resists any link between compensation and performance. At the same time, students, faced with the rising tuition prices, expect more activities, fancier dorms, comprehensive sports programs, expensive student union facilities, and some "name" professors on campus. At the University of South Carolina, the widow of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was paid $350,000 in travel and salary for teaching one class a week for three semesters.
The solution? What's on the horizon is a streamlining of the Ivory Tower, just as happened with American business when it had to change to meet the challenges of intense global competition. In education, too, the pressure for reform will come from the outside, from a government that's broke, stagnant incomes, and increased public opposition to new taxes.
The demand will be for increased accountability: higher productivity, merit pay for better teaching, performance-based budgets, the elimination of obsolete programs and inefficient work processes, greater cost controls, and increased competition through privatization and student vouchers.
Colleges, just like the rest of the economy, will have to refocus their resources to deliver the highest quality product at the lowest possible price.
*Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economics at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh.