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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Good Point in Paul Campos's Bad New York Times Piece on Public Funding

Last week's prize for most offensive higher ed article went to a University of Colorado law professor named Paul F. Campos, who had a New York Times Sunday Review tell-all about college costs.  The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much" turned out to be "not because states have cut funding for higher education." Prof. Campos came to this conclusion by replacing the standard funding metric--inflation-adjusted funding per student with the total dollars being appropriated all the way back to 1960. His  key paragraphs read like this:

[P]ublic investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher. 
In other words, far from being caused by funding cuts, the astonishing rise in college tuition correlates closely with a huge increase in public subsidies for higher education. If over the past three decades car prices had gone up as fast as tuition, the average new car would cost more than $80,000.
In other words, there is no state funding problem, and never has been.   The cuts are a "fairy tale."

This claim is a conceptual disaster at a time when many state legislatures have convinced themselves of exactly this--that if you add up all the revenues available to public universities, they haven't been cut at all. California's special variant is the claim that UC actually profited from the financial crisis and now has more money than ever.  (Then-Assembly Speaker John Pérez laid this out to the UC Board of Regents in January 2013.  And now he's UC Regent Pérez.)  The fallout has been a slew of competing legislative efforts to bring UC to heel, so many that I need a scorecard like this Sac Bee piece, and  Cloudminder's recent links.

1. Actual Austerity

In a concurrent blog post at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Prof. Campos illustrated the NYT claim about the state funding boom with this chart.  (He has another that adds in federal Pell Grants.)

There he repeated a milder version of the NYT claim, "It’s quite an interpretive challenge to translate these numbers into the claim, made universally by higher ed administrators, that fifty or more years of practically continual tuition rate hikes have been caused by cuts in public subsidies."

So first, do Prof. Campos's numbers show crazy public funding growth?  Sticking with state appropriations, the first thing to point out is that the curve falls into two periods: a steady rise from 1960 to 1990, and a slower, jagged rise from 1990 to 2015, with an aggregate decrease from 2010-2015. The State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) just released its report on state appropriations for FY 2014, and confirms that state appropriations in constant dollars are still about 19 percent below their 2008 peak.   Nobody has been complaining about state appropriations from 1960 to 1990.  The complaints are about overall stagnation after 1990 and real cuts after 2008.  By folding recent declines into a bygone golden age, Prof Campos distorts the current history and sidesteps the current funding debate.

Even this overall appropriations growth doesn't show the insane extravagance we're supposed to see.   The best historical data about states comes from Illinois State's longtime Grapevine project, which began toting up state allocations for the 1960-61 year.  They came to about $1.5 billion total (when California appropriated twice the total of the next largest public system, Illinois').  By 2015 the total was about $81 billion, for an unadjusted increase of 54x.  Sounds like the states were just throwing money at public colleges, right?

Wrong. Money often grows at that rate. Say you're a retirement fund, and you started with $1.5 billion in 1960.  Fifty-five years later, your fund has $81 billion.  All this means is that your fund grew at about 7.5% per year, which is about the growth target set by the UC Retirement Program and similar funds.  Prof. Campos was, in other words, amazing Times readers with the miracle of compound interest.

As for other benchmarks, Warren Buffet actually returned 19.7 percent per year in a similar period. 10 percent annual returns on investment is a standard target; the S&P 500 has long returned about that when dividends are reinvested; venture capitalists look for five-year ROIs that are orders of magnitude more than 10%.  So even before we start correcting Prof. Campos growth curve, we can see that 10x over 55 years (inflation adjusted) is what is supposed to happen to resources in a successful economy.

Second, the article's use of aggregate funding growth drove budget watchers crazy.  At Inside Higher Ed, Dean Dad sounded off, calling the column "both a failure and a mess, and the two are related." His piece expressed common academic anger at the sloppiness with which the mainstream media tosses around bogus charges that don't need to be true to do enormous damage. Brian Leiter, in the law school world, hated on Prof. Campos' long division

On Monday, more or less the best non-IHE/CHE journalist working on higher ed funding, Jordan Weissmann, went after the piece in Slate under the title, "The New York Times Offers One of the Worst Explanations You'll Read of Why College is So Expensive." He delivered the right College Funding 101 lesson, which is that it isn't total dollars but dollars per student that matters as a baseline: "Depending on who's counting, states are giving schools somewhere between 25 and 30 percent fewer dollars per student than they were 15 years ago. And someone has had to make up that difference. Namely, college kids."

At the AAUP's Academe Blog, Martin Kich offered various charts, including the standard pattern of tuition increases and state funding declines (per student).  For those in doubt:

Precise curves will vary, and the exact peak of state support may have occurred in 1987, 1990, or 2001 depending on which inflation index you use. But the correlation is clear: per student funding has declined, and student tuition has gone up.

Back at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Prof. Campos produced a more conventional chart with the consensus conclusion. Appropriation growth is terminated by student enrollment growth.  Appropriations go sideways after 1990 and then decline after 2010.

Take Pell Grants out, and you get the standard decline story.  (You should take the Pell Grants out: they are federal money that backfills tuition charges to students, not new operating allocations.) SHEEO's latest report has the definitive version.  This is net tuition (green) and state appropriations (blue), per student FTE, in 2014 dollars using SHEEO's Higher Education Cost Adjustment (HECA) index.

Note, to repeat, that real per-student state appropriations are down about 25 percent from 25 years ago. Note that a doubling of net tuition has not brought total resources back to their 2001 peak. Recall that this is the period in which US degree attainment fell to 16th place in OECD rankings.  Note that rising college enrollments has now reversed. 

In other words, per-student public funding has been cut. Tuition and student debt have boomed concurrently. So Prof. Campos winds up back where we all started, with per-student appropriations that are less that what they were seven years ago or 25 years ago, and with educational problems that follow from the reality of this long-term austerity on the public side of the university system.

2. Expanding Admin

So why did Prof. Campos deny per-student austerity, which is real, to focus on aggregates that stopped rising very quickly about twenty-five years ago?

My theory is that he has been driven half-mad, like many of us, by the refusal of senior academic managers to put their own choices into the picture, and say yes we too have increased costs with our decisions. Prof. Campos seems to have been willing to reinforce damaging stereotypes of overfed public colleges in his obsession with rejecting the causal claim that public cuts (and only public cuts) produce tuition hikes.  His last line in the Times reads:  "What cannot be defended . . . is the claim that tuition has risen because public funding for higher education has been cut" (emphasis added). In other words, he's saying, universities have hiked tuition also because of other cost increases, many chosen by the universities themselves.  And on this point, he is absolutely right.

His Times piece moves on to offer its own causal explanation.

[A] major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.

This picks up a theme Prof. Campos has aired in the national media before. Time magazine gave him space in 2013 to attack E. Gordon Gee as he was stepping down from his highly-compensated second stint as Ohio State's president.  In a piece called "The Lessons of the Megalomaniac University President," Prof. Campos termed President Gee's $2 million per year (plus another million a year in travel, entertainment, and related expenses) "disgusting." He went on to say,

Gee also increased the size of the university’s senior staff by 30% and raised their average salaries by 63%, to $539,390 in 2011. To get a sense of how out of control university-administrator compensation has become, consider that a year before Gee began his first tenure as Ohio State’s president, the president of Harvard was paid $138,044 ($256,000 in 2012 dollars), and only eight university presidents in the entire nation made more than $200,000. Now, thanks to Gee and his ilk, there are dozens of administrators at Ohio State University alone who would consider that sum an insult.

If you think this is cherry-picking, look at another figure showing the unmistakable national pattern.

The largest employment growth is in non-faculty professions, which include not only senior staff but the ever-larger administrative middle of public universities.  This lopsided growth marks a major shift in resources from educational to non-educational personnel. It has coincided with two other things Prof Campos and many others lament: faculty salaries that on average have stagnated since 1970, and the adjuncting of most college instructional staff. "Administrative bloat" means falling faculty salaries (see Prof. Kich's numbers) and downgrading education. Administration competes with instruction and research for the limited internal funds that underwrite both, and has been winning.

3. The Price of Privatization

Faculty are sick and tired of austerity, and of blocked upgrades of teaching and research, and of being wrongly blamed for tuition increases.  So when one like Prof. Campos sticks his neck out, how do administrators respond? We have one instance in a letter to the Times by University of California CFO Nathan Brostrom. He rightly noted that public funding cuts are real, and then wrote,

Mr. Campos blames administrative bloat and high salaries; I disagree. The State of California, for example, funds the University of California system at the same level as it did in 1999 — even though today we enroll 83,000 more students and have one more campus.

What? This is like saying, "I didn't pay too much for my new car since I made less money this year than last!"   Obviously a university can get less money from one major revenue source and still spend too much of it on administration.  Perhaps an editor butchered Mr. Brostrom's argument: this certainly doesn't qualify as a serious response to questions about internal costs that university administrators have themselves tolerated or initiated, or to the educational damage and workplace degradation that result.   So nothing will happen, until the next faculty cri de coeur that houses a reasonable point in an overblown war machine aimed at maddening discursive defenses.

Mr. Brostrom and Prof. Campos are two sides of the same coin, or the two poles of a frozen dialectic.  One side says the problem is all outside the university, particularly in legislative cuts.  The other side says that the problem is all inside, particularly self-serving managers larding up administration.   Each side uses the other to disengage from open institutional politics that would involve all parties.  The debate has occupied the center ring for years. It prevents discussion of the deeper forces reshaping the university.

A summary term for those deeper forces is privatization.  Neither the Brostrom or the Campos side focuses on the fact that privatization increases expenses as well as revenues. In reality, privatization forces the mission creep of multiplying activities, "businesses," funding streams, capital projects and other debt-funded investments, which increase all sorts of non-educational costs and also administration.  Private partnerships, sponsors, vendor relations, and so on bring in new money but also cost money, require institutional subsidies, and in many cases lose money for the university.

University budget offices have a bad habit of reporting revenues in many areas without subtracting costs.  If they really want public understanding of college costs--which I doubt--they need to disaggregate internally-driven cost increases.  Not all increased costs express a "cost disease."  Some reflect  improved quality of educational services.  Universities should try to separate increased expenses that improve "quality of care" from those that are focused on increasing revenues.  Then the latter should be broken down into those that produce net increases and those that don't.  

I am aware that this would be hard and somewhat subjective.  But trying to do it would hugely improve the cost debate, and also public awareness of why per-student public university expenditures never go down.

Administrative bloat is one of the prices of privatization.  Until we can have honest accounting of privatization's costs, public university funding will be going nowhere.  And academia's leaders will obviously be far more responsible for this stagnation than any number of articles by frustrated faculty like Prof. Campos.


Jennifer Ruth said...

Thanks for breaking this down, Chris. The unhelpful confusion generated by Campos's piece reminds me of a bizarre article The Oregonian published last year in which the reporter tried to make a tragic fact sound like a success story: "Portland State University [is] one of the most efficient public research universities in the nation, spending just $40,700 on education and related expenses for every graduate it produces."

Chris Newfield said...

"cheap higher education leads to less human capital formation" is an axiom of economists, in this case Walter McMahon. I thought journalists listened to economists at least!

Fernando Leanme said...

It seems to me the cost went up more than the state funding cut (if you used figure numbers I could refer to the figure). Being retired from an oil company I can vouch most upper management is way overpaid and self indulgent.

My guess is that universities need a budget makeover, maybe a completely different concept? I got some ideas, but most of those won't sell. Maybe I'll write something up in the future.

John E. said...

A very good point made about the "hidden" costs of privatization. That wasn't a way I've thought about it before.

Chris Newfield said...

@Fernando Leanme definitely interested in budget ideas other than the ones we have now.

Anonymous said...

This post is very helpful in clarifying and calling attention to the complexity of higher education funding and costs. I suggest adding yet another layer of analysis.

Discussions of this issue often bifurcate personnel, as this post does, into "educational" and "non-educational" categories. "Educational" generally refers to teaching faculty, and "non-educational" refers to non-teaching administrative personnel. Such bifurcation is simplistic in that it fails to account for administrative personnel who contribute directly to the education of students. I'm thinking of those who staff writing centers and other academic support facilities, educational technologists, the growing army of IT professionals who keep campus networks and online courses running, career development officers, non-faculty academic advisers, laboratory assistants and managers, etc.

Chris Newfield said...

I agree it's a simplistic bifurcation. But the first step would be to classify people correctly, which universities have been reluctant to do. One solution in adding up "educational" costs is to throw everybody onto the educational side, which I don't think is right either. I don't want to "other" non-educational staff since they are obviously making a contribution to the overall institution, and I would always want to bring them closer to the teaching and research rock face than to lay off--we need more teaching and research help than ever. But that will mean simplifying institutional metabolism and that isn't being done either. I'd like to get started on both these projects.

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