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Why college tuition is rising

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Posted: Friday, May 17, 2013 3:06 pm

As Lodi’s high schools prepare to graduate their senior classes, students will be excitedly looking ahead — perhaps with some apprehension — to the rest of their lives. For many, their futures will include continuing their educations at a four-year university. But the road ahead will be fraught with heavy expense that will present a financial burden to most.

When it comes to the college costs, an interesting paradox deserves consideration. On campus, there are two clashing factions — the increasing numbers of administrators who earn ever-higher salaries and the students who, possibly assisted by their parents, pay soaring tuition fees year after year.

Since 1978, the cost of attending college has increased 1,120 percent. To put the increase in perspective, here are the comparable cost hikes: medical care, 600 percent, shelter 350 percent, consumer price index, 250 percent, and food 220 percent. Only cigarettes and cigars have seen steeper increases.

Tuition costs are rising faster than inflation. That’s only part of the bad news.

The average graduate’s student debt totals $27,500 without any guarantee of a job. On the other hand, without a diploma, a young adult is doomed, unless he has a special skill, to minimum wage employment. College graduates earn nearly $600,000 more than high school graduates. Aggregate college debt is accumulating so rapidly that credit market analysts fear that it could become the next housing bursted bubble.

What’s also dramatically changed over the same period is the administrator-per-student ration. In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists,—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio was 1:68; professional staff to students: 1:21. The University of California is a great example. As of 2011, Cal had a combined student body of 234,464, 18,896 faculty members and 189,116 staff.

Forty years ago, America’s colleges employed more professors than administrators, 446,830 professors were supported by 268,952 administrators and staffers. Over the past four decades, though, the number of full-time professors or “full-time equivalents”—that is, slots filled by two or more part-time faculty members whose combined hours equal those of a full-timer—increased slightly more than 50 percent. That percentage is comparable to the growth in student enrollments during the same period. But the number of administrators and administrative staffers employed by those schools increased by an astonishing 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.

Every year, administrative overhead grows larger. Many have no experience in teaching or in education. Even though schools claim to be battling budget crises that are forcing them to reduce the size of their full-time faculties and increase tuition, universities are overflowing with hoards of bureaucrats—vice presidents, deans, provosts and their multiple layers of assistants earning hefty salaries.

Parents troubled by why college tuition is so high and why it increases so much each year will be unhappy to learn that their sons and daughters are paying more to interact with administrators and staffers rather than professors.

The hour is late to rein in the prohibitive college expenses. The best place to start would be to realistically evaluate the need for so many administrative layers with a goal toward operating costs consistent with reality.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com

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