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    Why Can't Education Reporters Read?

    Last week The Delta Cost Project, a non-profit that studies the cost of higher education, released a detailed report on revenue and expenses at American colleges and universities over ten years: "Trends in College Spending, 1998-2008." The report broke down the various sources of revenue, the different activities on which money was spent, and most interestingly the rate of increase of spending on each separate category. If tuition went up X percent, and university expenses went up Y percent, how much did each category of expenses go up? It's a smart, interesting and badly needed approach, but apparently too complicated for reporters who cover education to figure out.

    Education reporters at important mainstream institutions, including The New York Times and Bloomberg News, blew the story in various ways. They didn't blow it because they misunderstood the context, or the complicated back story, or the subtle implications. They blew the story because they did not understand the plain language of the report.

    The only other possibility is that they blew the story because they didn't actually bother reading the report. They already know what they think about education policy, and rigorously-researched data can't change their minds. Even if they physically read the report, they could not or would not process any information that didn't fit their pre-existing conclusions.

    Here's the basic takeaway of the report:
    1) Higher education prices continue to soar, vastly in excess of inflation and evidently even faster than prices of prescription drugs.
    2) The costs for colleges and universities do continue to rise, and the amount they spend on everything, controlled for inflation, rose. However spending on actual instruction (mostly on teacher salaries) rose much more slowly than spending on other categories. So between 1998 and 2008 the amount that major private universities pay to put teachers in the classrooms went up 22 percent, but spending on administration and on student services each went up 36 percent. Big public universities spent 10% more on teaching in 2008 than they spent in 1998, but the amount they spent on administration had gone up 20%.
    3) Private universities, with bigger budgets, spent much, much more on teaching than public universities did, or than community colleges did.
    4) However, the cost of attending a four year public university went up a lot faster than the cost of attending a four year priivate university. The costs of the Ivy League schools (and their less-famous but equally-pricey peers) and so on is going up fast, but the cost of the state universities is going up even faster.

    Sam Dillon at The New York Times wrote a relatively solid piece that was initially ruined by a bad headline: Colleges Spend More on Recreation Than Class. That headline is not even close to the truth. Education is still the biggest expense at every university. The problem is that rate of spending on things other than instruction is growing faster than the rate of spending on instruction. It's not about the amounts spent in a given year, but about long-term trends in spending. That's why the study is called "Trends in College Spending."

    By the time The Times corrected its headline, various other people had picked up the headline's story, based on no facts whatsoever, and run with it. Here's Daniel Lurzner at Washington Monthly, expressing his outrage at the Times's misleading sloppiness. But I would have a lot more sympathy for Lurzner if he had not written his own blog post based on the headline instead of reading the actual article or (heaven forfend!) the Delta Cost Project's report (or even the Project's press release about the report. I don't ask much). So Lurzner started to inform his readers, authoritatively, that a

    new study by the nonprofit Delta Cost Project demonstrates that American colleges are spending less of their money on actual education and more on administration and recreation.

    Again, untrue. The spending on actual education went up, although other spending went up even faster. The Times headline is extremely sloppy. But that's no excuse for Lurzner's own sloppiness. Education is his beat. He's supposed to read what he's reporting on and actually pay attention to it. The fact that the headline did not match the claims in Dillon's article is embarrassing. The fact that Lurzner did not notice that the headline's claim was not backed up by the article itself is worse than embarrassing.

    Meanwhile, Bloomberg's news wire reported this (as their lede):

    Private research universities spent twice as much as their public counterparts to teach each student in the 2007-08 school year, widening a cost gap that can make private colleges unaffordable to students, without the help of financial aid.

    So they get one fact right (private colleges do spend more money on teaching students), but another wrong. The cost gap between private and public college isn't widening. It's narrowing. Public colleges are getting closer and closer to charging Ivy League prices, while spending much less per student. Bloomberg's takeaway is exactly backwards.

    (The report does talk about a growing gap between public and private universities, but it's an educational gap. The schools whose students need the most resources have the least resources to give them, and this problem is getting worse. But Bloomberg's reporter either didn't grasp that or didn't care.)

    What's depressing about this is that the DCP's expensive, painstaking research doesn't even seem to penetrate the minds of people who cover education stories for a living. Those reporters simply plugged in the conclusions they expected to see, even when the report's conclusions (and its data) say precisely the opposite.

    Now, maybe I'm biased because I'm an academic. That means that I have some experience reading articles whose actual claims doesn't quite match the claims made up front. It also means that I have a professional bias toward research that changes the existing narrative rather than confirming it. I don't think conducting an exhaustive ten year study to find out exactly what people already know, or think they know, would be a good use of energy. But I think facts that make us change our minds are interesting. I see the point of doing research as changing people's minds by giving them a clearer, more accurate sense of the world. Perhaps those things are only valued inside the world of higher education. Clearly, at least some of the people who express an interest in "reforming" education don't value them.

    Higher education policy is an important issue, in which everyone has a stake. Certainly, higher education is facing serious structural problems, and they need to be thought through carefully. But it will never by fixed by people clinging to their preordained conclusions in defiance of the facts. It's fashionable for people to criticize the hidebound vested interests inside the academy, but at least some of the vested interested outside the academy seem at least as stubborn and resistant to evidence as any "old-fashioned" or "outmoded" academic could ever be. Some people have already decided that they know how to fix what's wrong with America's colleges, and they're not about to let facts get in the way.


    Doc, while I normally love your dissections of media misrepresentations, this post left me hungering for something else, perhaps because the issue of education costs baffles and disturbs me. Leaving aside media preconceptions, why do you think academic administrative costs continue to skyrocket every year? Where's all the money going?

    PS I think that you meant "faster than the cost of attending a four year private university."

    "4) However, the cost of attending a four year public university went up a lot faster than the cost of attending a four year public university."

    Something wrong there, doctor.

    Oops, I really should stop skipping over all Genghis's comments.

    Naw. That was a fluke.

    That's what happens when you bold things. Your mind truns to rot.

    Fixed. Thanks for the catch, Genghis and AC. And thank you, Quinn.

    As for answers, Genghis ... I think there are a lot of reasons, and I didn't want to speculate in this pos, especially after buisting on journalists for peddling their pet theories. I have theories, both pet and full-size, and I'm going to be blogging a lot of them in the near future.

    For now... one of the things that's led to the faster growth of non-instructional spending, at least at public schools, is that cutbacks tend to fall on the instructional side. One of the study's conclusions is that every time a state government cuts back funding (which is cyclical), those cuts fall heavily on the instructional side. In practice, I suspect this means not replacing tenure-line faculty who leave, or replacing them with so-called part-time faculty who make a small fraction of a professor's salary, and once those reductions are made, they are seldom repaired.

    (Okay, I'll present it from my side of the table. If budget times are hard, and one of your co-workers retires, the administration asks your chair to just *delay* hiring a replacement for two years or so, till the budget gets better. And by "ask" I mean "not give permission or funding to hire." Then, when the state budget gets better in two or three years, and you ask the administration to replace your colleague from two or three years back, they say, "Well, you look like you've been getting along fine without her. You really don't need a replacement. You just want one.")

    Meanwhile, the administration hires new administrators and staff, but that's not seen as bad stewardship because since they're hiring people without tenure, you don't have to worry about keeping that salary forever. However, in practice you do carry that salary forever, because organizations are naturally reluctant to fire people, and because those positions come to seem necessary. (So if you fire a superfluous assistant dean, it's because he's doing a bad job, but you replace him with someone making roughly the same money.) Administrators have come to see tenured positions as "inflexible" burdens on the budget, but people on the non-tenured side will also permanently increase the budget. In fact, that expense might be more permanent, since those positions tend to be filled when vacant, while faculty lines are deliberately left unfilled.

    Some administration and student-services expenses doubtless appear to administrators either as necessary for institution building or as part of the educational mission. At many places, they've added tutoring centers instead of hiring more faculty. And once you've created a new administrative post that;s designed to increase enrollment, or build the school's PR brand, or whatever, that person is going to look crucial to the administration's mission and they're going to protect that.

    Some of the administrative and student-services expenses have probbaly been cut back since 2008 (the study covers the ten years up to the beginning of the crash), precisely because those positions aren't protected by tenure. But if that seems to point to the inefficiency of tenured faculty ... well, if it weren't for the rule against it, a lot of colleges would have saved more administrative assistants and cut more classroom teachers. I'm not sure restraining them from that course of action was an unmixed evil.

    Thank, Doc. That explains the relative differential between the growth in academic and administrative costs, but it doesn't hit the burning question: Why are administratitive costs climbing so much faster than inflation, not just at a few bloated and inefficient universities but across the board?

    I know it's a big question and that you want to avoid the pat answers of the journalists, so feel free to kick this can to a future blog post.

    Well, the Times piece floats the current hypothesis that schools need to add all kinds of frills to compete for student enrollment. The basic claim is that students and parents have become such picky consumers that you need to spend a lot on bells and whistles to attract them. (The favorite cartoony example is building a rock-climbing wall for the students.) That argument is current inside university administrations, and it isn't the whole story but is probably part of it.

    It is true that it's hard to build up enrollment by improving a college's teaching. Even if administrators had much direct control over teaching quality, which they really don't, the improved teaching will be invisible to outsiders and even to the administrators themselves. The effects of improved teaching are delayed; the results stat to show indirectly a couple of years down the line, in stats like degree completion and anecdotes about graduate success. And better teaching only becomes something that parents and donors and prospective students notice after a generation or so, after the well-educated undergrads have become prominent and successful alumni. Increase your instructional quality for fifteen years or so, and your reputation will go up. But that doesn't help you meet your enrollment target for next fall.

    On the other hand, administrators can put resources into non-academic and para-academic programs pretty easily and get clear, useful results. You can show off shiny new builidngs, the new tutoring center and computer center, the nicer food in the dining hall, and a bunch of small, contained programs (like study abroad or first-year boom programs) that  have intellectual value but aren't integrated into classes or majors. Those things will work. If you're an administrator, you'll be under enormous pressure to do them.

    If you ask the Math and Sociology Departments to limp by short-handed for a couple of years, and offload some of your foreign-language teaching to cheap "part-time" instructors, the educational quality will slip a little, but no one will notice for a long time. (Until it's too late to turn things back around easily.) If you let the campus grounds go to hell, everyone will notice immediately and view it as a reflection on the school as a whole. If parents take a campus tour and things look run down, they're not going to write you a check. So it's perversely easier and safer, at least in the short term, to skimp on teaching instead of landscaping.

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