Why Higher Education Is Stagnating

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The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good explainer on the expanding layers of bureaucracy that are making American higher education cost more and more without measurably improving the quality of thinking or breadth of knowledge among graduates: When students arrive on a campus, they’re looking for services and…

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a good explainer on the expanding layers of bureaucracy that are making American higher education cost more and more without measurably improving the quality of thinking or breadth of knowledge among graduates:

When students arrive on a campus, they’re looking for services and amenities, many of which colleges have not traditionally offered. Student services — such as help applying for a scholarship, aid in landing a job, mental-health counseling, top-notch residence halls, wellness centers, study-abroad opportunities, and orientation programs that include adventure trips — are all a given on many campuses these days. And each new service or amenity comes with the professional staff to run it. […]

Growing organizations grapple with problems that bureaucrats tend to think can be solved by creating more bureaucracy. For example, an institution that wants to become more sustainable would probably name a chief sustainability officer and then build a staff for that person to oversee.

One reason this problem is hard to tackle is that the Left and Right disagree on the ultimate cause of the bloat. Many progressives see it as a product of the free market: If students and parents select colleges based on the quality of student spas and diversity centers and other amenities, then of course colleges will tailor their offerings to meet that demand. The real question is how to make access to college even more universal. Conservatives, meanwhile, are more likely to point to overweening government, including unnecessary regulations, which require more staff to implement, and to federal student loan programs, which pay the salaries of well-organized bureaucrats and end up funding superfluous services that colleges might otherwise forego.

There is some truth to both of these analyses, but neither side is offering a realistic program for how to address the underlying problem. “Free college” programs, now popular among Democrats, will simply make the underlying cost even higher, even if they shift it to taxpayers rather than consumers. And GOP slash-and-burn efforts at state universities often extract theatrical budget cuts without actually excising the source of the rot. Student tuitions go up and faculty salaries are frozen, but the bureaucratic bloat isn’t actually rolled back.

Perhaps the best hope for reducing bloat is the entrance of new types of educational institutions into the market—ones that don’t have state-of-the-art gyms and legions of guidance counselors, but that offer a high-quality education at a significantly lower price. There have been germs of efforts along these lines at the elite level. Whether they can get a big enough foothold in the higher education market to make a difference remains to be seen.


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