The High Cost of Higher Education

04/06/2015 03:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

The high cost of higher education has become the central public-policy issue for the middle class, meaning it has become the central public-policy issue for all of America. And in the inevitable finger pointing about the cause of the hyperinflation of tuition, people prefer a villain (the proliferation of "the administrator" on the organization chart) to structural causes (the withdrawal of state subsidies) or market trends (competition to provide amenities and boost rankings).

Nobody is about to defend the cost of a degree. But changing the description of the faceless bureaucrats who allegedly have overrun campuses by explaining that they are student-services professionals makes all the difference.

It is true that at any type of school, there are many more people who are not teachers than there were before. Higher education's "consumers," as they prefer to be called, demand no less. The "administrators" who have become common include those who specialize in, for example, recruitment, counseling, support for affinity groups, career placement, and financial aid.

A generation ago a sophomore whose parents did not finish high school would have found that she had to make her own way; now she can turn to people devoted to her success. Those staff persons include people with expertise, not merely people given extra tasks.

The importance of information technology also has changed the cost structure. In addition to people who set up A/V for classrooms and troubleshoot, there is a cadre of technicians maintaining the website, servers, and enterprise software that keep everything functioning. Without them, nothing could be done in an ordinary day.

Even as we bemoan the bill, we increase the complexity of higher education. Regulatory compliance is a growth industry in all sectors, and there is no exception for colleges and universities.

Sexual assault is an excellent example. The past year has seen an outcry against the severity of this problem. Everyone agrees that schools should take it more seriously. But if we want to address the problem meaningfully, we have to assign someone to do so. That means either asking someone who is doing some other function, most likely an individual helping students in another manner, to stop doing part of her current job and start doing more on Title IX, or hiring someone new to take on the responsibilities -- not to mention training them and trying to be as proactive as possible.

The very insistence on transparency in higher education comes at a cost too. Transparency is not free. Law schools are about to face audits of their employment statistics. Other than the much-maligned "administrators," however, few observers have paid attention to the extraordinary effort needed to compile information on graduates and where they have ended up. Enormous amounts of time that could have been used to introduce job seekers to prospective employers instead must be expended tracking down people and verifying their salaries.

There are choices we can make. An imaginary school without "administrators" would be a school without -- or with much less by way of -- student services, information technology, and the ability to follow the myriad laws imposed on higher education.

Very few institutions, much less their "customers," are eager to offer the no-frills version of higher education. Our expectations continue to rise, but our willingness to pay has begun to fall.