Monday, June 14, 2010

Higher Education Woes Part I: More Funding Alone Won't Help

Colleges and universities in the U.S. have become less and less able to provide the courses and faculty expertise they have in the past, while at the same time tuition and fees have skyrocketed.  Over time, the quality of course content has declined as the pressure to enroll and graduate more students has increased. This problem poses a threat to rational research and problem-solving that will be need in the coming decades of change.
The blame for this is usually leveled at cuts in state budgets, but the problem exists in private institutions as well.The real culprit is the ever-growing, highly paid, non-educational administrative beast that must be fed by increased student payments (hence higher enrollment), less staff and less upper-level classes with small enrollments. Marketing is key in bringing in more money to feed the beast and eventually marketing becomes an end unto itself. College athletics is also part of this paradigm. All this was well-detailed by Bob Samuels in an April HuffPo piece that looked at the stressed UCal system. My favorite parts of his article:
"In 2008, there were 397 staff and administrators in the over 200k club making a collective total of $109 million, and in 2006, the same group had 214 members for a collective gross pay of $58.8 million."
"In other terms, the increased expense of administration not only takes money away from the instructional and research budgets, but it also gives power to people who have no connection to education." 

In short, the former supporting actors of educational institutions, administration and athletics, are now the prime reason for the existence of many colleges and universities. IMHO the problem is compounded by many self-righteous, tenured and ensconced baby-boomer faculty who are more concerned with their perks and retirement benefits than the future of their departments and the graduate students they keep running through the system.
Update: the Boston Globe had a piece today on the digs of college presidents at prestigious Boston area institutions and how the IRS is pushing to have them considered compensation. Now college president is a needed admin. position and one would expect that Harvard would put theirs up in one of the stately properties they own. But in any school, once you start adding more high-end administrators (usually to oversee some trivial matter that could be handled by existing mid-level offices) they require staff, swank offices, staff and housing.  You can see how the money will then flow away from education and research to support the compensation we are told such administrators require. Things do not have to be at the level of what is offered at MIT etc. for this to occur.

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