by Daniel L. Bennett
Robert Archibald and David Feldman have an article in the the CHE today that is critical of my report on the Higher Ed Labor Force. They contest that college staffs have become bloated, suggesting that colleges have instead responded to demand for a more educated workforce - a trend that has affected a large number of industries in the US. Yet, prices for most goods, with health care being the exception (worth noting is the similarly high degree of 3rd party payments in both health care and higher education), have grown at rates substantially less than tuition.
The bulk of their argument rests on the rise of technology and the need for a greater number of technology specialists - a point that I concede has some merit. The authors also briefly mention an increase in the number of staff providing auxiliary services (housing, food services, career advice, counseling, etc.), as well as the need for folks to administer research grants. Proponents often suggest that these services are provided because students demand them. Where is the data that shows how often and how many students are using the plethora of prepaid services that are bundled with tuition? Are students getting their money's worth? Does each service pass a cost-benefit analysis? Are public funds subsidizing education or bureaucratic expansion? These are the questions that should be addressed.
Along with other critics, I contend that colleges have lost focus of their primary mission of providing an education in lieu of trying to be all things for all people and trying to serve multiple missions that may not necessarily be harmonious. Edward Morris discusses this extensively in The Lindenwood Model, in which he cites the increasing focus of colleges on research as contributing to the burgeoning support staffs at colleges. The reason he explains is that in the past professors not only had teaching and research duties, but also were active in student engagement, offering both academic and life counseling.
Fast forward to today and we find that professors not only are increasingly disengaged from teaching (evident by lower teaching loads and an increase in the proportion of courses taught by adjuncts and grad students), but they've also had their student counseling activities outsourced to non-instruction related staff, so that they can focus on research. As CCAP has contended in the past, much academic research has little relevance to society as a whole and may only be read by the relatively few specialists in a field who subscribe to one of the many obscure academic journals. Is relinquishing the duties of professors to help students succeed in life in order to pursue obscure research, and substituting them with "professional" support staff that add to the cost of providing an education a productive use of resources? Probably not.
I'm glad that Archibald and Feldman have taken the time to conduct further research in response to my report. Intended as piece of basic research to draw public attention to the burgeoning administrative army on campus, the report has proved effective in stimulating public discussion and further research in the area. I consider this a benefit to society at large as it moves us closer to the goal of colleges providing more information to the public (so that students, parents and policy makers can make better decisions) without having to impose additional regulatory mandates. As the public becomes more aware of what they are paying for in higher education, I suspect that tuition will begin to stabilize.