Words & analysis by Andrew Thompson
Because of the variance of sources on tuition within schools, some years include fees and others don’t.
But the cost of living isn’t skyrocketing. So where does all the money go? It’s not to faculty, whose full-time employees are increasingly replaced with part-time adjunct hirlings. Again, the story is the same as it’s been for the past 30 years, but worth restating, which the writer Thomas Frank succinctly did in 2015: “This same industry, despite its legal status as a public charity, is today driven by motives indistinguishable from the profit-maximizing entities traded on the New York Stock Exchange.”
Like their for-profit forbearers, the new university throws its full weight behind building its brand. Its sports teams render the school logo into a franchise, teams of bureaucrats compile Strategic Plans to erect glimmering residential towers reaching toward the sky, and elaborately orchestrated campaigns are rolled out to portray the growth of an endowment as a question of a university’s life and death. None of these are jobs that professors have ever been known to excel at—what they require are administrators, whose ranks have swelled and salaries have grown more or less in lock-step with their schools’ ever heavenward sticker price. Indeed, the plot of the top-five most highly paid university administrators from each school traces a shape that could just as easily plot the compensation of a C-suite at any boomtime company.
The only numbers that go up faster than the cost of college are the salaries of the people who run them. We did the (infuriating) math.
In 2008, the IRS issued new rules on reports of salaried personnel at non-profits, effectively forcing colleges to publicize the compensation of more employees. Suffice to say, the salaries from 2008 and on include previously unreported employees, such as sports coaches, physicians, and a broader category of vice presidents.
To discuss the rise of college tuition costs is, on some level, little more than the futile reissuance of truisms. Yes, the costs keep rising, seemingly without end. And no level of economic or political meltdown thus far has been capable of even mildly slowing the bull run of college costs.
“There tends to be a malaise about tuition increases,” says Cody Hounanian, program director at Student Debt Crisis, an organization that advocates for student debt reform. “People become calloused to it, it becomes less newsworthy.”
Incoming students continue to enlist for years of debt peonage. Student debt now tops $1.5 trillion and eclipses every other form of debt in the United States—including consumer credit and mortgages—it’s worth updating the graph of disaster. But at least that higher tuition isn’t going to pay professors. It’s going to non-teaching administrators, whose salary increases outpace even those of tution.
In two of the eight schools we examined, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern, tuition hasn’t just continued its ascension, but has increased almost perfectly linearly. This, despite the ritual hemming and hawing by administrations about how exogenous forces like the cost of living have left them with the last nuclear option of raising the sticker price before shutting down scholastic programs.
The top five salaries themselves don’t explain the growth in tuition, but they do evince a broader cultural shift, away from servicing students to servicing growth for growth’s sake. In 2012, for example, the left-leaning Institute for Policy Studies found that at public universities with the highest paid presidents (including those of Temple and the University of Pittsburgh, which are in the graph above), student debt increased 13 percent faster than the nationwide university average.
But hey, at least the college experience was a memorable one.
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Still Crazy After All These Years