Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Do tuition hikes pay for anything?

with 3 comments

If you all have not been reading Bob Samuels blog posts at el Post de Huffington, go do it now. Samuels is a high-up in the AFT (American Federation of Teachers, for our Canadian friends, our biggest teacher’s union) and his latest is a superb analysis of why tuition is rising so high at American universities. The common justification, of course, is that student tuition is rising because the cost of education is so high. College administrators often claim that each student actually costs the university more than they bring in.

As Samuels points out, this claim is based on the false assumption that you can simply add up the operating costs of a university, divide it by the number of undergrads, and then get the cost per student from that. If that cost is more than the amount the student pays in tuition, the argument normally goes, then that difference is being subsidized either by the tax-payer (at a public school) or donations (at a private school). The need to fill that gap justifies both tuition hikes and the use of school funds in risky hedge-fund style investments.

The whole thing never smelled right to me, and Samuels does the math to show that it can’t possibly be the case that most students actually get their tuition’s worth (which now rises above 50,000 per student at a place like NYU) in the classroom. Needless to say, much of a student’s tuition goes towards things they will never use. Instead a fraction of it goes towards the expenses of the actual classroom (essential costs like the salary of the instructor, costs of the room, etc…)

So where does the money go? Samuels argues that it largely goes towards graduate education and prestigious professors who barely teach (along with parasitic administrators and millionaire college presidents). These don’t play much of a role in students’ lives, but are all designed to enhance the prestige of the university.

The key point is Samuel’s’ conclusion: “Therefore, what students are purchasing is not an education or a credential; rather, students are buying prestige and reputation.”

Thus an NYU undergrad isn’t getting their money back in the classroom, since their being taught by some poorly paid adjunct or TA. Rather their money is going to pay the salary of Thomas Nagel or Nouriel Roubini, who in turn boosts the reputation of NYU, which then raises the value of the diploma that the student receives. Students are paying, then, to be associated with a school. They are branding themselves, in a sense; attaching themselves to a school that supposedly inspires confidence.

Isn’t it all the perfect educational philosophy for our economy? Nothing is solid or concrete. Rather all relies on the illusion that there is some value to what you’ve purchased. What if everyone just decided tomorrow that an NYU or a Harvard diploma was useless? Well you’d be fucked, since you didn’t even get a better education in the first place. At least the community college graduate isn’t $200,000 in the hole.  It’s all a confidence game, maintained by our belief that an NYU diploma will continue to be valuable in the future.

Second, talk about “stripping of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe.” Functionally, what are prestigious professors but paid spokesmen, selling their reputation in order to increase the amount a school can charge for tuition? Just like people want to buy Pepsi cause Britney Spears endorsed it, so you want to go to Princeton because Paul Krugman is there. And you’ve only barely got a better shot at being taught by Krugman at Princeton than you do at meeting Britney Spears if you buy Pepsi.

Finally, this just lays bare the class element of higher education. One can hardly justify paying the big bucks to go to an elite private school based on educational excellence. Its not like you learn spanish 10 times better at Harvard then at UMass, but it costs you 10 times as much. You’re paying for the diploma which is your ticket into the elite. There is barely even the illusion that our elites are more educated- they just ponied up more money when they were 18 then everyone else did.

(I’m aware of my own role as a parasite in this, by the way, living off the fat of poor indebted students. No need to point it out…)


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

February 18, 2010 at 00:22

Posted in Academia, Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. Some scattered thoughts:

    1) I agree with the thrust of this post. But I think that some of the specifics muddle your claim. I will draw on my experiences both at Harvard and NYU and provide more info on this, just not right now. Too busy grading.


    February 18, 2010 at 12:39

  2. Ok. So I agree that university tuition is way too high, and many students are overpaying based on what it’s worth. But a few things should be said.

    I think we’re caught in the humanities bubble. Equipment used to run science labs at elite universities is very expensive. Sure, grad students have most of the exposure to this stuff, but unndergrads do as well. And I have no doubt that places like Harvard offer resources in the sciences that community colleges simply cannot compete with. Top public universities like Berkeley can, but of course the UC system has its own share of financial difficulties.

    Also, places like Harvard are able to offer very generous financial aid packages. For a friend of mine from the Boston area, Harvard actually presented a cheaper option than UMASS. Obviously, on the whole the student bodies at Ivy League schools come from privileged backgrounds. But these schools have the resources to provide need-based aid the way places like NYU do not.

    Lastly, it’s funny you bring up Princetonites not being able to see Krugman. I cannot speak to that specific issue, but I know that Princeton has a reputation for giving its undergrads exposure to top faculty in a way that Harvard, for example, does not. But school isn’t all about student-faculty interaction, it’s also about student-student interaction, and buulding an intellectual community. And I would argue that there, schools like Harvard and Princeton, and schools like Swarthmore adn Amherst and Williams, do a pretty good job. Not perfect for sure. And the community is relatively homogenous in terms of socio-economic background (of course, socio-economic diversity is a code word for inequality, as Walter Benn Michaels explained). But you get my point: there is a value in gathering a bunch of smart people and having them live and learn together.

    Unfortunately, this value, while good, might also make our society more unequal, or at least perpetuate existing inequality. So I’m not sure if there’s a real solution here.


    February 18, 2010 at 15:45

  3. As a grad student at another Ivy League University I do generally agree with this post, but you left something out…. I have less of a problem with money going for prestigious professors, than I have with it going to our bloated athletic budgets. Why are an Olympic swimming pool, a full ice rink, indoor football practice areas, etc etc. and all the equipment, travel and other expenses that go with those programs essential to a high quality educational institution? At least academic celebrates have some true value to offer society, they are positive role models. But sports celebrates, for the most part are destructive. students sacrifice their education, taking easy courses to keep up with their athletics on the negligible chance of becoming a pro athlete. What a waste of student’s tuition.

    Cornell Grad student

    February 21, 2010 at 10:52

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