An Acerbically Brilliant Analysis of Media Analyses of Spiraling Higher Ed Costs

What follows is about 10% of a long but very engaging article, “Colleges Are Full of It: Behind the Three-Decade Scheme to Raise Tuition, Bankrupt Generations, and Hypnotize the Media,” published today in Salon. Its author is Thomas Frank, who edits The Baffler magazine (which, if you haven’t read it, is well worth a visit:


And so, beginning in the ’80s, university administrators, their words dutifully transcribed by journalists, blamed utility bills for soaring tuition. They blamed libraries, which made a certain amount of sense until libraries went dramatically out of fashion in the Internet age—and yet still tuition prices went up.

They blamed professors, of course, since professors are the most visible part of a university and because it’s easy to hate professors. Sometimes university spokesmen would claim that colleges were being forced to spend a lot in order to hire the very best professors, an academic echo of the reasoning corporate America uses to explain fat executive salaries. On other occasions, however, they would claim that they were being forced to spend a lot because professors nowadays were lazy and didn’t want to teach and so they were forced to hire an expanded roster of them to offer all their courses. Both excuses were plausible on paper, and there’s probably some university president somewhere who’s still blaming professors for his insane tuition bills. But these alibis only made sense until the outside world figured out that universities were actually using graduate students and adjuncts to teach their courses and yet still tuition prices were mounting at an insane clip.

Administrators also blamed tuition inflation on onerous government regulations, which (they said) forced them to hire bureaucrats to fill out forms; sometimes they did this even when they themselves had lobbied for the government regulation in question. They blamed students, who were supposedly demanding all manner of luxuries and would not be denied. “Students today want carpeting, they want furniture, they want voice mail,” an administrator at a Nevada university told USA Today for a 1997 story about the tuition spiral. “They want all the amenities that 10, 20, 30 years ago were almost unheard of.” (One wonders if, by that logic, students today “want” life-altering amounts of debt, too.) . . .

The possibility that higher tuition prices were going to pay for rapidly multiplying and yet educationally unnecessary administrators was not really raised in earnest until a memorable page-one series published in 1996 by the Philadelphia Inquirer. This interpretation had the virtue of being accurate: Unlike tenured faculty, university administrations actually have grown by 369 percent since the mid-1970s. (As I have noted before.) But blaming administrators proved difficult for journalists, perhaps because administrators were the very people journalists had been going to for explanations in their tuition-outrage stories. Could their sources actually be the culprits? No way. And so, less than a year after the Inquirer’s series appeared, USA Today ran its own big tuition-shock tale in which the blame was pinned on all the familiar blame-objects: professors, student demands, technology, gummint regulation. A 1997 cover story in Time magazine—“How Colleges Are Gouging U,” the illustration shouted—barely mentioned administrators at all.


The full text of Thomas Frank’s article is available at:


2 thoughts on “An Acerbically Brilliant Analysis of Media Analyses of Spiraling Higher Ed Costs

  1. The crux of the issue is that universities simply don’t know the actual cost of teaching a course. It’s easy to blame rising tuition on a number of different culprits with opaque financials. Universities completely understand their budget, but this only tells them what they plan to spend, not how much things cost. The solution is for administrators and faculty to work closer together to develop a transparent system to determine the actual cost of teaching individual courses/subjects, research and other services the university might provide. I draw your attention to three articles, one from the Chronicle summarizing the issue an excellent paper written by Bill Massy Professor Emeritus and Former Vice President for Business and Finance, Stanford University – discussing the careful balance of academic values in the marketplace
    and a paper we contributed to with Maria Anguiano from the University of California and advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, explaining the mechanics of this transparent costing system

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