A Critique of Richard Vedder’s Recommendations for Higher Education, Made in Response to President Obama’s Recent Proposals

Part 3: Reduce the Cost of a Degree by 40% by Reducing Labor and Capital Costs.

[Explanatory lead to the first post in this series: Richard Vedder is distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. In an earlier post, I pointed out, as others have, that he is hardly an unbiased or objective commentator on the state of higher education because his connection to the conservative American Enterprise Institute has come with a $150,000 annual stipend.

Nonetheless, as the author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, he was asked by CNN to comment on President Obama’s recent proposals on higher education [The article is available at: http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/opinion/vedder-college-costs]. Vedder took the opportunity to restate four of his own recommendations for making higher education more affordable.]

First of all, this is the second instance in this relatively brief article in which Richard Vedder is proposing to cut the cost of a baccalaureate degree by 40%. So, I am not sure whether he is arguing that his suggestions will together reduce the cost by 80%, or he is indicating that either of the proposed changes will produce such savings but simply not explaining that there is some level of revenue below which our institutions are economically unsustainable. If the latter is the case, then the two proposals should be more clearly presented as an either-or proposition since the changes are too radical to justify enacting them simply for the sake of enacting them.

Beyond this major ambiguity, this section of Vedder’s article is the least focused of the four.

He begins by emphasizing that over the past forty years, the number of non-instructional personnel at universities has doubled, and he proposes that the number of administrators and administrative staff be reduced to 1970 levels.

Although Vedder is absolutely right in asserting that administrative costs have been a major driver in the escalating cost of a degree, this sort of proposal is ridiculous simply because it has absolutely no chance of being adopted anywhere.

In fact, the only thing that the proposal really does is provide cover for further arguments that faculty workloads are unnecessarily light and need to be increased. And those arguments are much more likely to resonate with Far Right legislators, who generally see little downside to escalating executive compensation and widening income inequality, and with university administrators, who increasingly measure their reach by the bureaucracies that they are able to create, rather than by the number and achievements of the faculty whom their institutions employ and by the number and quality of the students whom they graduate.

Personnel costs still typically account for 80% to 85% of institutional spending. Instructional costs, which often include administrative costs in an university’s colleges and departments as well as service-unit costs in support of instruction, now typically account for about 35% of total spending. Salaries and benefits (when provided) for all faculty (tenured and tenure-track, non-tenure eligible full-time, and part-time) typically account for only about 20% to 25% of total spending. The salaries and benefits of tenured and tenure-track faculty now typically account for 12% to 15% of total spending.

These percentages will be very surprising to most Americans and might be surprising to a large number of tenured faculty.

Some other numbers, which have appeared in many recent articles on the topic but may nonetheless be equally surprising, provide a ready insight into how that shift in spending priorities has been achieved. Adjunct or part-time faculty now constitute more than 50% of the faculty nationwide, and they now typically teach 75% percent or more of the courses at many community and technical colleges and at for-profit institutions. But their numbers have been rising inexorably at other institutions as well. Full-time, non-tenure-eligible faculty, typically categorized as instructors and lecturers, constitute another 18% to 20% of the faculty. And tenured and tenure-track faculty now account for no more than 30% of the faculty.

Clearly, administrators have been reducing costs from the instructional units at almost every type of institution, except perhaps the most elite universities, and a large portion of those revenues have been reallocated to the creation of bureaucracies. One can, perhaps, argue whether those bureaucracies are necessary, but they are clearly no longer affordable.

Vedder suggests, in effect, that the reduction in administrators be correlated to a proportionate increase in teaching loads. He suggests that teaching loads be increased from two or three courses per semester to four courses per semester. He seems to be unaware that even at some large state universities, teaching loads have long been creeping upward toward the levels that he is suggesting—especially in the humanities and social sciences, which most corporatizers of higher education regard as largely superfluous. I do not have the statistics to support this supposition, but I am guessing that the number of institutions at which tenured faculty in the humanities and social sciences have  two-course-per-semester teaching loads is very small and that at most of those institutions, the cost of attending is not an issue for most of the students.

Vedder couples the complaint about light teaching loads with a complaint about faculty self-indulgently creating superfluous courses on trivial topics, such as “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,” and he suggests that such courses are being taught instead of courses on Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Van Gogh.

First, this is a cheap shot at the humanities and social sciences simply because it is so selective. I am absolutely certain that I could produce a list of courses with equally topical focuses across the disciplines.

Second, just because a course is topical does not mean that it is trivial. The same people who argue that our universities need to be very responsive to the rapid pace of change in the broader world often argue that in the humanities and social sciences a rather rigid canon of “classic” works ought to be restored. Typically, these arguments are framed as either-or choices because who, for instance, would argue that Lady Gaga is more important than Shakespeare.

Lastly, this complaint reflects the corporatizers’ discomfort with and attacks on academic freedom. They attempt to force their opponents to defend academic freedom by defending very selective examples of the corporatizers’ choosing, such as the course on Lady Gaga. But what is inherent in their arguments is the belief that the curriculum at most institutions should be standardized, that course development should be decoupled from course delivery. This will permit an even greater exploitation of adjunct faculty or, as they are called by “educational providers” such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill, “contracted evaluators.” (I will have much more to say on this aspect of Vedder’s proposals in the fourth and final post in this series.)

The same people who are comfortable with the widening income inequality in this country are also comfortable with creating an increasingly two-tiered system of higher education in which the elite institutions continue to offer first-class educations but all other institutions provide something that will be less and less comparable until it is, presumably, something else entirely.

Indeed, at the end of this section, Vedder proposes that since the bureaucracies at most public colleges and universities have become too entrenched to make the changes that are necessary to restore access and affordability, it may be time for “state institutions to create new institutions from the ground up.”

We have seen this same approach in K-12 public education. Struggling districts have been given reduced resources and further funding has been funneled off to alternative “charter” schools, and the failure of the districts to produce better results more with fewer resources has then been used to justify still further reductions in support. But with all of the attention to the deficiencies of the public schools, there has been little attention to the equal deficiencies of a large percentage of the supposed alternative choices to our failing public schools. There is an increasing body of evidence that shows that paying teachers much less and reducing their job security does not, after all, necessarily produce a better education.

And what will be the charter-school equivalents for post-secondary education? The for-profit institutions such as Phoenix, Kaplan, and Corinthian, which have turned student debt into enormous profits with very little public good to show for it if graduation rates are, in fact, to be a major measure? Western Governors University, which employs no faculty but depends entirely on Pearson and McGraw-Hill for course content and whatever assessment is necessary to measure “competencies”? Coursera, edX, and Udacity, which are relentlessly promoting MOOCs even though almost no one completes the courses, the pedagogy has severe limitations, and the universities whose faculty are developing the courses will not accept them for credit?

The same end of the ideological spectrum that, in a scandalous number of our states, has promoted the teaching of bullshit history and bullshit science in K-12 classrooms should not be trusted to do anything with high education except to diminish or even demolish it.

Higher education is facing serious issues with access and affordability, but the answer to such issues is clearly not to do things that will only compound them.


Part 1 of this series is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/09/03/a-critique-of-richard-vedders-recommendations-for-higher-education-made-in-response-to-president-obamas-recent-proposals/

Part 2 of this series is available at: https://academeblog.org/2013/09/04/a-critique-of-richard-vedders-recommendations-for-higher-education-made-in-response-to-president-obamas-recent-proposals-2/

3 thoughts on “A Critique of Richard Vedder’s Recommendations for Higher Education, Made in Response to President Obama’s Recent Proposals

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