The Crisis in American Colleges: Rising Tuition and Labor Degradation

by Akim Reinhardt

Tuition costsAmerican colleges have undergone substantial changes during the last three decades. Rising tuition costs, which have far outpaced the rate of inflation, are nearly universal. Other changes that have affected most schools include a tremendous growth in non-instructional areas and a serious re-shuffling of labor. Many schools have added layers of administration; seen their rosters of administrators substantially enlarged; and spent millions of dollars on non-instructional construction such as recreation centers, student unions, and administrative buildings. Meanwhile, the ranks of college teachers have shifted from tenured and tenure track (TTT) professors to predominantly contingent faculty (ie. non-tenure track) that falls into two broad groups: part-time labor (adjuncts and graduate students) and full time labor (mostly lecturers and visiting faculty).

There are, of course, many causes and explanations for these wide ranging changes, as well as varying degrees of change among America's hundreds of colleges. For example, private colleges are generally less dependent on public largess, though many of them do in fact receive public subsidies from federal, state, and even local governments. Meanwhile, the public colleges that rely more heavily on public spending face different circumstances depending on which of the fifty states they are part of, all of which have different budgets and policies for supporting higher education. In some states there has been extreme volatility in funding while some have been more stable, though in almost all states the share of public college budgets supplied by state governments has declined. This has led most public schools to not only raise tuition rates, but to also seek substantial revenue from fund raising, which runs the gamut from alumni contributions, to naming rights of campus buildings, to exclusive contracts with junk food venders. For example, many schools have cut deals with either Pepsi Co. or Coca Cola, Inc. granting one or the other head of this corporate duopoly exclusive rights to sell beverages on their campus.

Amid all these changes, most TTT college professors are alarmed at the decline of their cohort, less for selfish reasons (they are secure, or will be once they earn tenure), but more because it is a degradation of higher education. The creation of a two-tiered labor system, with a minority of TTT professors and a majority of contingent faculty, is patently exploitative and an affront to the values of higher education.

Contingent faculty receive lower pay and benefits (if any) and have no job security, generally working on short contracts. Some are only 10 months long. Most are 4. For schools that run on a trimester schedule, adjunct contracts may be only 3 months long. Indeed, labor conditions are so insecure that many schools will not even admit to firing contingent faculty except for the rare instances that take place mid-semester; when adjuncts, lecturers, and the like are effectively fired, colleges often insist otherwise, claiming that the these temp workers are simply not having their expired contract renewed.

When it comes to justifying the degraded working conditions of contingent faculty, college administrations have a choice. On the one hand, they could say it is because contingent faculty are inferior teachers. They could disingenuously claim that this is a class of worker not good enough at their craft to earn a TTT position.

Of course colleges do not actually say this, for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's not true. But beyond that, while such a claim would rationalize labor exploitation, at least to some people, it would greatly upset parents and students who are paying the ever higher rates of tuition, the faculty themselves, and institutions like U.S. News and World Report that issue the college rankings many administrators are so keen on.

The other “justification” for exploiting workers is more honest: that colleges are simply taking advantage of a labor glut and engaging in crass exploitation to produce a two-tiered system in which the lower tier of workers gets less compensation and no job security despite being, on the whole, every bit as good at their job as the higher tier of workers.

The problem with admitting to this is that, aside from being a very distasteful thing to say publicly, colleges don't want to draw attention to the fact they are actually complicit in creating the labor glut they exploit. All colleges are guilty, for they have eliminated positions in the higher tier and created more and more jobs in the lower tier. Beyond that, however, research universities have an extra layer of complicity. These are the institutions that overproduce Ph.D. students. So as all colleges reduce the supply of top tier jobs and increase the supply of bottom tier jobs, research schools also increase the demand for top tier jobs by cranking out too many doctoral students.

Predictably, American colleges simply try to avoid publicly talking about the reasons for their two-tiered labor system.

Perhaps the bitterest of all ironies in this situation is that the top tier workers at research universities, TTT professors, directly profit from this overproduction of Ph.D.s. At such institutions, graduate students handle a large chunk of TTT professors' grading, thereby facilitating the professors' focus on research. In addition, the growing class of contingent faculty, which is partly the result of the research schools overproducing Ph.D.sUS News and World Report College Rankings 2013, teaches a majority of courses at American colleges, thereby subsidizing the small teaching loads of TTT professors at research schools, who typically teach four courses per year.

At colleges that emphasize teaching instead of research, TTT professors teach more, handle most if not all of their own grading, and produce few if any doctoral students, so their role in the exploitation of the lower tier of labor is lesser. However, lesser is not the same as none. Some of them still funnel undergraduates to doctoral programs, thereby contributing to the glut. And all TTT professors comprise an upper tier of labor that, generally speaking and as a group, has either done little to change matters, or has been ineffective when they have tried, even to the degree they are capable.

This situation has contributed to an increasingly hostile climate between faculty and administration. Many TTT faculty blame college administrations for the two-tiered labor system, the loss of TTT jobs, and the exploitation of an expanding lower tier of labor. A common accusation is that college administrations have grown bloated at the expense of faculty.

Meanwhile, administrators often play into stereotypes about professors by accusing them of being out of touch with “the real world,” in this case the realities of modern college budgets. For example, they point out that some administrative growth is the result of federal regulations, not discretionary spending. Since nearly all colleges receive federal funds, they are all subject to federal regulations tied to those monies. These regulations often demand increased administrative expenditures to ensure compliance. Furthermore, some administrative costs, like IT support, didn't exist thirty years ago.

And for their part, contingent faculty are often embittered by the entire situation, quick to blame all sides, and not unreasonably so.

The reality is that many phases of society, in and out of academia, are to blame for the current problems in higher education.

Many state governments, alarmed at higher education's share of discretionary spending, have slashed funding, thereby forcing schools to make tough choices that are almost guaranteed to produce negative results.

Many administrations have gone on to make dubious choices about resource allocations, in part because of budget cuts, but also in part of misplaced priorities, such as a growing corporate culture that stubbornly insists non-profit schools should be run like for-profit businesses, and students should be treated like “customers.”

Many TTT professors are either safely ensconced in their tenured positions or working towards such, while doing nothing to challenge the two tiered labor system they profit from.

Many parents and students, as consumers, have rolled over. Convinced of the supposed necessity of a college education, some have let themselves be bullied into putting up with spiraling costs and a problematic teaching system. Others have taken a lackadaisical approach to examining a product they will spend tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on, and are largely unaware of the situation. Indeed, so long as parents and students put up with all of this, nothing is likely to change anytime soon.

And even contingent faculty themselves must, at a certain point, take a modicum of responsibility for their situation. They are clearly the most victimized class in this scenario, frequently having accumulated five- or even six-figure debt as graduate students while spending years earning poverty wages so they could train for this career. However, the current labor market conditions took a noticeable turn for the worse nearly 6 years ago, and have been very bad regardless since the 1970s. It is important to enter doctoral programs with a realistic understanding of one's chances of obtaining a TTT job, and to give serious thought about how long one is willing to be a contingent faculty while pursing a TTT job, and what the other reasonable options are if that fails.

Again, not to blame the victim. Excepting the small fraction of adjuncts, such as retirees, who really do want occasional part time work, the vast majority of contingent faculty have every reason to feel angry and aggrieved; they are in fact being grossly exploited. But the complexities of their career choices at various stages are one part of a large, complicated equation.

Large and complicated enough that the 2,500 words or so in a Monday 3QD article can hardly scratch the surface under most circumstances. However, a report released just this month by the American Institutes of Research (AIR) offers an opportunity to concisely shed some light.

Entitled Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive? Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education, the report examines spending at American colleges during the years 2000-2012. The findings are illuminating.

Between 2000-2012, the total higher education workforce actually grew by 28 percent, despite the Great Recession of 2008-present. This is of course noticeably different than many other industries that contracted during those years. Why the overall growth? There short answer is: Millennials. Simply put, there's an up tick in student populations. Another echo from the post-war Baby Boom, there is a bulge in the college age demographic. Thus, new workers were hired at colleges, even during the Great Recession, in an attempt (and not always a successful one) to keep pace with rising rates of student enrollment.

However, most employee growth at colleges during the last twelve years has not been in the form of teachers. It is in the form of non-instructional employees, who comprise a clear majority of the college labor force. Among them, the report defines two classes: salaried administrators, whose numbers have grown substantially, and support staff such as secretaries and maintenance workers, whose numbers have actually declined.

The report notes that, “administrators have assumed a much larger presence on college campuses than ever before.”

Mortar boardAs mentioned above, administrations have several sound explanations for at least some of their growth. Other justifications are perhaps less sound. One example is to classify much of what they do under a vague banner of their own invention: “student services.”

After all, who can argue with the importance of serving students?

But make no mistake: so-called student services are still non-instructional. What are they exactly? A far ranging spectrum too broad to comprehensively list here.

Some of it is vital, like dormitories and food halls. Some of it is non-essential to education but still of tremendous worth, such as counseling and health centers. And some of it, like campus festivals and concerts, leads many faculty to roll their eyes and suspect that “student services” has become a cover for unworthy administrative expenses. Regardless, none of it is designed for the classroom. And from 2002-2010, as paradoxical as it sounds, spending on instruction declined while spending on student services rose.

When peeling back the layers of administrative growth, the AIR report finds that it is a two pronged development. First comes the hiring of managerial administrators. These tend to get the most attention, as they include high powered administrators who typically boast shiny titles, expansive offices, and six-figured salaries bolstered by expense accounts. Shiny titles and big salaries tend to ruffle feathers at colleges for several reasons:

-They seem incongruous at a non-profit institution.
-They seem incongruous within the culture of academia specifically, which prides itself on a professorial workforce that has chosen “a calling” instead of prioritizing material gains (Whether or not this is true is debatable, of course, but it's a common perception within academic culture.).
-The professorial workforce is composed of intellectuals trained to analyze and critique, and its members are often quick to question the legitimacy of shiny titles and big salaries/expense accounts for non-instructional administrators.

But what the report makes clear is that the expansion of top rank administrators and their sometimes shockingly large salaries is not, in and of itself, what drives up costs. After all, a quarter-million dollar salary to one individual really is a drop in the bucket of most college budgets.

Rather, it's that most of these new high-ranking administrators require, or at least demand, a sizable staff of administrators working under them. After all, they're managers. The crux of their job is overseeing the work of others. A manager without a workforce is like a god without parishioners: that fancy title just ain't worth much.

According to the AIR report, the rising cost of administrative salaries is due to the expanding ranks of subordinate administrators (not to be confused with staff such as secretaries), as much as the new top level executive administrators whom they answer to.

How this plays out across academia depends to a large degree on the type of school being examined. At private research colleges, which tend to have more money than public institutions, the rate of administrative growth was higher even than the rate of student growth, sometimes substantially. At public colleges, however, administrative growth barely merely kept pace with student growth for the most part.

Regardless, as college administrations have grown, the ratio of faculty and staff to administrators has declined at all types of institutions. And the decline has not been small. At most colleges, the faculty/staff : administrator ratio plummeted by about 40% from 1990-2012.

As the report bluntly states: “On most college campuses, the majority of workers are not teaching students.”

Taking this all into account, it should come as no surprise that at colleges and universities across America, the ranks of full time teachers (both TTT professors and full time contingent faculty) have dropped. Together they comprise between one-fifth and one-quarter of the total workforce.

In other words, about 4/5 of employees at American colleges are either not teachers or only teach part time. And of the remaining fifth, a growing share of full time teachers are contingent faculty with less pay and fewer benefits.

Adjunct faculty, in the form of part-time workers and graduate assistants, constitute more than one-half of the teaching workforce at most colleges. New full time faculty are still being hired, but at a rate that usually lags behind student enrollments. Furthermore, many new full time hires are contingent faculty who receive lower pay and benefits, if any.

At wealthy schools, adjunct faculty allow for more sections to be taught, thereby helping maintain the lower teaching loads of TTT faculty. However, at schools with fewer resources, typically the public institutions that ostensibly focus on faculty teaching instead of faculty research, the growing ranks of adjuncts are actually replacing full time positions, whether contingent full timers or even TTT professors.

Community colleges are the schools most dependent on adjuncts, essentially riding a flotilla of part time teachers. This underscores the fact that state colleges which emphasize teaching often get the least amount of public resources, while schools that emphasize research almost always take home the lion's share. Clearly an argument can be made that this is a disservice to students.

Add it all up and the report find that the numbers of administrators and adjuncts, as a percentage of the workforce, grew at every type of college in America. Meanwhile, the percentage of staff employees has decreased at every type of college, and the percentage TTT faculty has decreased at every type except for public research universities (1% increase) and private research universities (3% increase). In no category of school do TTT faculty comprise so much as a quarter of the workforce.

Given the growth of contingent, and especially part time faculty, and thus the downward shift in faculty compensation, it should not be surprising that faculty salaries do not explain skyrocketing college tuition. In fact, like most American workers, full time faculty have suffered stagnant wages. From 2002 (six years before the Great Recession) through 2010, college expenditures on salary for full-time faculty were essentially flat.

But if faculty expenditures don't explain rising costs, neither is the answer simply “administration.” The growth in administration, both in terms of salaries and expenditures on non-instructional projects such as construction, has indeed been a factor, the AIR report reveals. But it is not the only one.

In addition to the increase in administrative salaries, one factor is the increased cost of salaried benefits for all administrators, faculty, and staff who receive benefits. For example, America's stunningly inefficient healthcare system, which gobbles up about 18% of Gross Domestic Product, continues to claim a growing share of university expenditures.

Again, it is very important to note that many adjunct faculty, and even many contingent full time faculty, receive few if any of these benefits. This is at once a clear indication of labor exploitation, and also an indictment of larger social and economic problems in the United States.

Another factor explaining rising costs is the aforementioned decline in government subsidies, which affects all schools, but particularly public schools. The downward trend is longstanding, but the Great Recession put sharp spurs to it.

While a small handful of schools such as Harvard and Yale boast endowments larger than the GDP of many nations, and enjoy the fiscal flexibility that comes with them, the vast, vast majority of American colleges do not have a rainy day fund anywhere near large enough to help them cope with these complex changes.

As a result, colleges have scrambled to adjust. The stunning rise in tuition rates over the last three decades is one result, and so too is the equally shocking rise in exploited contingent faculty. And while it seems likely that many colleges have made some poor choices while trying to adjust, larger structural forces have greatly limited their options.

Akim Reinhardt's website is