The Cost of Growing College Administrations

June 20, 2005

Forbes magazine, in its “On My Mind” feature in the issue of June 20, 2005, has a guest opinion piece by Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, and the author of Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much (AEI Press). Professor Vedder takes note of the widely observed phenomenon of college costs going up much further and faster than the student population served: “How could it be [that] colleges have devoted relatively little new funding over the past generation to the core mission of instruction (spending only 21 cents of each new inflation-adjusted dollar per student on it), preferring instead to assist ressearch, hire more nonacademic staff, give generous pay increases, support athletics and build luxurious facilities?” Alan Charles Kors and I posited one answer to the seeming puzzle in our book The Shadow University. We noted the extraordinary increase in administrative staff on the student life side of colleges and universities. We attributed this in large measure to the vast increase in the university’s control over and interference in students’ non-academic lives, under the rubric of the university’s resurgent in loco parentis role. This development, commencing in the 1980s, coincided with the entrenchment of the notion that students in the newly diversified American university could not learn to get along without administrative micro-management, “sensitivity training,” imposition of forced “civility” with the aid of speech codes, and other such devices seeking to avoid “offense” being inflicted upon, or at least felt by, students, particularly those in “historically disadvantaged” groups. These vast new armies of student life administrators were seen as necessary, too, to protect universities from liability under new anti-harassment legislation and regulations—or so it seemed to timid administrators and the general counsel who advise them. The result has been an academic culture as sterile as it is oppressive. A good part of the problem perceived by Professor Vedder could be solved, it seems to me, by restoring liberty to our campuses and relying more on the good sense and good faith of students to learn how to get along, without parent-substitutes seeking to micro-manage their every interaction. Surely it’s worth a try. Those of us who have substantial interactions with college students will, I think, agree that the average student has a healthier and more robust view of human relationships than the typical student-life administrator.