Higher education is in very serious trouble. And its problems are not something that can be solved quickly, or without serious changes to the way that the system works. Higher education, which for years has been trusted to educate the country's young people, has reached the climax of a decades-long transformation from a system of intellectual exploration and learning, where degrees were measurements of achievement and creative thought was valued and fostered to a system modeled after corporations, fraught with grade inflation and worthless degrees, focused on career paths and earning as much money as possible.
Today, these problems threaten the long-term viability of an institution that has long been relied upon to increase the well-being of the citizenry, strengthen democracy and ensure the long-term economic health of the country. Higher education, long the path for people to climb the class ladder, is increasingly being commodified, and its access restricted. Will this trajectory continue or will higher education go back to its foundation: the relationship between students and professors and the pursuit of knowledge?
In the last ten years, tuition and fees increased 66 percent beyond inflation at public four-year institutions and 26 percent beyond inflation at private not-for-profit institutions. Nationwide, total student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars and the average student with debt owes about $26,600 each. Why has there been such an increase?
Many point to administrator salaries and growing university bureaucracies as a main factor in the increase in university tuition. In 2010, 36 presidents of private institutions of higher education earned more than $1 million. And while only three public university presidents made similar amounts, the median salaries for university presidents does not differ between public and private institutions ($379,000 and $397,860) and have been increasing at similar rates over the last few years.
The last few decades have also seen the rise of what Johns Hopkins University Professor Benjamin Ginsberg calls "administrative blight." A 2010 study found that between 1993 and 2007, the number of full time administrators per 100 students grew 39 percent, while the number of professors, researchers and other academic staff increased only 18 percent. Ginsberg bemoans this growth in administrative and other non-academic staff at colleges and universities, which he sees as distracting institutions of higher education away from their core missions of teaching and research. An extreme example of this is the University of California at Davis, where during the timeframe of the study, their full-time administrative staff increased by 391 percent per 100 students, their academic staff decreased by 4.5 percent per 100 students. Add this to the millions that universities spend on sports programs and real estate investment, and it looks like the education of students is taking the back seat in favor of other priorities for many colleges and universities.
The same students who have historically struggled to access higher education are going to be the most affected by higher tuition rates. Students of color, immigrant students and working class students, many of whom struggle as is to afford higher education, will only continue to be excluded if tuition rates continue to increase. Community colleges, which for years have been a stepping stone to four-year colleges and universities for many students, are now out of reach for many as states slash budgets for higher education and tuition rates soar. The impacts of these changes are summarized quite well by Gary Rhoades of the Center for the Future of Higher Education when he wrote: "Our current policy path, of continued cuts in state support and continued increases in tuition will only increase the stratification [in higher education] in the future."
Playing a role opposite the students are the professors, whose responsibility it is to encourage the spirit of inquiry among students and to teach them to think critically and creatively. As I have written about before, there is an increasing trend at colleges and universities of replacing full time teaching and research jobs with part-time and other contingent faculty, who, in addition to being paid meager salaries, do not have time to conduct research and further the advancement of knowledge. Because of their precarious situations, the academic freedom of contingent faculty is often called into question and they are not able to provide the high-quality of education that they would wish to provide.
At many college campuses, there has emerged a distinct class structure within the faculty. At the bottom are the adjunct professors, paid by and hired by the course, often as low as $2,000 or $3,000 per course. The next level up is the full-time term faculty members, who are hired on single or multiple year contracts to teach a full course load, and often still struggle to make ends meet. Even though they are not paid to conduct research, many term faculty members conduct research on their own time in order to try to move up the academic ladder. Finally, at the top are the tenure track professors and the tenured professors, who enjoy the resources that should be given to all professors: comfortable salaries, office space, time to conduct research, etc. Together, part time and full-time term professors represent about 70 percent of all faculty. Only 45 years ago, these numbers were the exact opposite and 78 percent of faculty members were on the tenure track. This rapid change has come at the expense of both professors and students, while bolstering what appears to matter most: universities' bottom lines.
Does this sound like a system that is working properly? On one side, student tuition is being raised as much as 5 percent a year, restricting access to higher education to only the most privileged students. On the other side, professors are being paid poverty wages, severely impacting the quality of the education they are able to provide, and working in academia is looking less and less like a viable career path for most students, limiting the expansion of knowledge. Without taking serious steps to resolve these problems, the crisis in higher education is going to continue to grow. This crisis is not only endangering the futures of those working in academia, but the futures of all students, as well as the health of our country's democracy and economy.