06/02/2014 07:22 pm ET Updated Aug 02, 2014

Gourmet Climbing Walls and the Wolves of Old Main: Why Higher Ed May Need a New Rating System

Toward the end of Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) has flown to Los Angeles to try to win Annie (Diane Keaton) back. It doesn't go well.

She ends their conversation by saying that she has to get ready for the Grammys and Alvy begins to rant about the American obsession with awards. "Greatest Fascist Dictator," he fulminates to no one in particular, "Adolph Hitler."

Yes, we do love to rank, rate and award everything from restaurants to sports teams to presidents. And colleges. That last one is causing quite a kerfuffle at the moment.

The (utterly silly) business of ranking colleges and universities (and law schools and medical schools and graduate schools) has been the purview of publications like US News & World Report and Barron's for some years. Clearly, these kinds of rank-ordered lists sell, never mind that the order never changes that much ("Harvard drops to #112 in this year's Barron's guide!") or that the whole enterprise is largely factitious.

Now, however, the Obama administration wants the federal government to develop its own rating system for higher education, and the stakes are potentially a lot higher than winding up on the wrong end of a US News & World Report survey. American higher education receives a roughly $150 billion per year federal subsidy in the form of loans and grants, and the administration is threatening to hold colleges and universities accountable for it.

As the New York Times reported (May 26), many college and university presidents are up in arms. A "sledgehammer" approach, the Times quoted Northern Virginia Community College president Robert Hemplin as saying. "Clueless," according to Charles Flynn, president of the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

And I don't disagree. Any system of educational "metrics" is likely to result in a crude reductionism -- a debasing of the very purpose and value of education in the first place. As with all such systems it will only count those things which can be counted -- like post-graduation employment rates and average salaries -- while missing altogether those things that can't be counted. Like finding your passion in life or sorting out your place in the cosmos.

Yet as much as I hate the very premise of these ratings games, and as much as I suspect the result will be to impose an external set of priorities onto colleges and universities, a part of me is sympathetic to the administration's efforts.

Higher education is crouched in a defensive, reactive posture because it has it has not confronted a set of numbers that simply can't be ignored: the rising cost of a college education and the concomitant rise in student debt. Both of these have been well-covered in the press and are increasingly urgent topics of conversation.

It is certainly true that the costs of college have risen for some unavoidable reasons. Who could have predicted 25 years ago that campuses would have to be re-fitted with all kinds of digital equipment and wireless technology? All those buildings, all of that wiring, all pretty expensive.

Even more than expenses like those, however, education is a perfect example of the Baumol Effect. Economist William Baumol noticed that in certain of our endeavors labor costs continue to rise though labor productivity does not increase. His famous example was a Beethoven quartet which takes exactly as much time to play today as it did one hundred years ago and with exactly the same number of players. But those musicians now make more money. Teaching is exactly the same. I make more money than I did as a new assistant professor but I don't teach any faster, nor do students learn the material at twice the rate they did when I started. That's just the way it is.

But at the same time, higher education administrators have been positively obtuse about other costs on campus that have little to with the costs of teaching and research. Let's call one the Gourmet Rock-Climbing Wall phenomenon and the other the Wolves of Old Main.

If the college was once modeled on the monastery, over the last two decades or so many campuses have transformed themselves into versions of Club Med. Old college gyms, perfectly functional if a bit smelly, have been replaced with "health clubs" that rival any you can find in LA or New York. How can any college hope to attract new students without a three-story rock-climbing wall, after all? Gone are the days of cramped dorm rooms and lousy cafeteria food replaced now with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Campus Edition."

These new amenities are all very sparkly and I'm sure the students love them, but they have little to do with the core mission of higher education and, more to the point, they costs lots of money. So does the remarkable proliferation of "student services" of all kinds which themselves often require new buildings and significant numbers of staff. Now add in the cost of the athletic department, which at the vast majority of colleges and universities spills red ink every year, and you're talking some serious money.

Decisions to hire a celebrity chef, or to turn the student union into an upscale shopping mall are made, of course, by administrators who are increasingly disconnected from the classroom or the lab. More and more institutions are run not by people who are committed to (or even understand) the essential values of higher education, but by those loyal only to their own careers. These are the Wolves of Old Main, for whom each administrative job is simply a stepping stone to the next, more lucrative position somewhere else. Their salaries and, more importantly, their ranks have bloated magnificently over the last generation. More and more of them making higher and higher salaries.

In the grand scheme of university budgets, that bloat may or may not have contributed to the galloping price of college -- and thus to the growing debt students are saddled with to pay for it. But the optics here are simply terrible. University presidents, and their vice presidents, and their associate vice presidents, and the assistant vice president to the associate vice presidents, have defended their salaries (and their bonuses?! Why should college administrators get bonuses??!!) with a let-them-eat-cake arrogance. For a generation college and university administrators have denied that the Gourmet Climbing Walls or the Wolves of Old Main constitute a genuine problem, too busy apparently cashing their ever-growing checks and cutting ribbons on new fitness facilities to notice.

Having failed to police themselves, either by reining in rising costs or by addressing the problem of student debt, colleges and universities should not be at all surprised that Washington may be sending in cops of its own to clean up the mess. Not to worry, though. Administrators can work out their anxieties about the new federal rating system by doing some rock climbing.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His latest book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century out in July with Oxford University Press.