Phi Beta Cons

Culture

Rising Tuition Costs Due to Higher Faculty Salaries? Hardly

The New York Times regularly presents what its editors regard as a “just-the-facts-ma’am” analysis of a controversial issue, in a column they call the Upshot. 

On December 18,  Harvard economics professor N. Gregory Mankiw attempted to explain three reasons why college tuition, even adjusted for inflation, has risen 70 percent in the last two decades. 

I will recommend that readers peruse the many perceptive online comments attached to the Times article, as they form their own assessment of Professor Mankiw’s arguments. I’ll confine myself to just one of his arguments — his assertion that “the ideal experience for a student is a small class that fosters personal interaction with a dedicated instructor. In other words, best practice remains the approach that Socrates used to teach Plato 2,500 years ago. But because society overall is now richer, today’s Socrates expects a reasonably high standard of living, and that implies hefty tuition.”

Maybe the professoriate at Harvard is unaware of the tectonic shift over the last two decades from full-time tenured faculty to miserably paid casual labor, also known as adjunct faculty. Indeed, fully 50 percent of courses taught in American colleges and universities are taught by these itinerants, while the ranks of the comparatively well-compensated tenure and tenure-track faculty have shrunk by a factor of three, to something less than a third of all faculty.

We need to face facts — it is certainly not the cost of instructors that has driven the overall tuition increases. It is the cost of exploding administration and facilities that are doing that quite nicely, thank you. For further detail, I refer Professor Mankiw to Professor Paul Campos and his excellent commentary on the issue that appeared just this past spring — in The New York Times, no less. 

Vic Brown had a thirty-year career in the chemical industry with FMC Corporation, where he held senior positions and worked internationally in sales, marketing, manufacturing, information technology and procurement.

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