Friday, May 29, 2015

Why Most Colleges Don’t See the Crisis Coming

By Professor Doom

      It’s no secret that there’s a big problem in higher education, a problem steadily getting worse. Tuition prices are rising to ridiculous levels. Quality of education is dropping to laughable levels. 

     And competition for those last few suckers students that are willing to go into debt is rising every year, due to worthless accreditation and widespread online coursework fraud making it relatively easy for anyone willing to pay the accreditation fees to put up a school that can compete with every other institution on the planet for that student loan loot.

      It’s obvious this can’t continue forever, and the game is coming to an end. Can administration look that far ahead and start planning for a change?
Admin: “We have determined that your volunteer service does not count as community service.”
Me: “I represent this college, and show the kids that neither mathematics, nor college professors, are meanies to be feared.”
Admin: “That may be, but the average age of the children there was barely 14. We’re a college, our students generally run 18 and up. So, you’re not getting credit for community service.”
Me: “Just how old do you think those 14 year olds will be in 4 years, you shortsighted imbecile?” “Okeedoke.”

--The gentle reader needs to understand that most college leadership simply cannot plan ahead. Instead, college administration looks to sell out the school’s reputation as quickly as possible, jack up growth numbers by whatever means (including fraud), and move on and up through the system.

      Most administrators in higher education never bother to look at the big picture, never try to connect the dots between what’s happening at the institution, and what’s going on in the real world.

Admin 1: “Our new facilities will be at 100% capacity from day 1. Every room, every seat filled.”
Admin 2: “Our plan is to double in size as quickly as possible as soon as we move into the new facility.”
--The entire faculty was forced to listen to these people. These two administrators have offices that share a connecting door, and said this at a mandatory meeting. Nobody seemed to see any issue with what was said, although, much like in my previous anecdote, faculty know better than to point out obvious issues with administrative thinking.

     Even as higher education’s intense fascination with questionable online coursework moves more and more students online, no administrator has figured out that means we really don’t need to keep on with a madcap building spree in higher education…a building spree that’s loaded campuses down with expensive-to-maintain buildings. There’s no interest in building parking places, of course, nor has anyone in leadership figured out what will happen when straight demographics says we’ll start losing students, no matter what, because of an aging population. Each administrator at every institution plans for growth, growth, growth.

     Some schools are already feeling some pain from the forces that are bearing down on higher education:

--great place to work for, indeed. I’d love to see the breakdown of who was eliminated. Usually it’s one admin for every 3 to 10 faculty lost—because of the vast disparity in pay, admin can justify doing this because “ultimately both groups lost as much in terms of salary…” One administrator represents as much salary as 3 to 10 faculty, you see, and you can—apparently—always increase class size to make up for lost faculty.

     Because the finances at a school are completely opaque except to a select few, nobody ever sees it coming when a school is in serious financial trouble. “Nobody” includes even the federal government:

Sweet Briar provides an excellent comparison to Birmingham-Southern. Shortly after the decision to close the College was announced, the US Department of Education awarded the institution its highest financial rating – a 3.0 grade based on it’s FY2013 audit. So, why then did Sweet Briar’s Board decide to close the College?
…As Jim Douthat notes, the march toward bankruptcy often begins slowly and then accelerates suddenly. That 3.0 federal grade had been based on past history. Their Board moved in response to the likelihood of fiscal collapse in the near future.

      So right after the school announces “we’re shutting down” because of money issues, the Federal government awards that same school the highest possible financial rating.

     If “highest possible financial rating” means “fiscal collapse in the near future”, only a fool would put much stock in a Federal government rating. Well, I guess that’s always been true, and only a fool believes government economic numbers today. I wonder if anyone else can connect the dots between the government’s complete inability to figure out the financial future of a small school, and the government’s ability to figure out the financial future of an entire country…but I digress.

    While many administrators can’t connect the dots even when done for them, a few colleges have realized that a crash in higher education is coming, and the time to prepare is now.

      These few schools, like Grinnel College, are doing the obvious things in preparation for a collapse. Grinnel has 1700 students, and isn’t making plans for nationwide advertising campaigns for online coursework to encourage massive growth. They’re not covering their campus in dust from endless new construction. They’re not bloating up their administrative caste with high numbers and huge salaries. And everyone gets to see what’s going on:

     When the stock market collapsed in 2008, Grinnell’s Board of Trustees concluded that the College faced the triple whammy of declining tuition revenues, growing operational expenses and a seriously weakened endowment. To prepare for change, they shared a computer program that allowed its users to project future institutional budgets using existing income and expense trends. The effect produced consensus on the need to work together.

To this end, Grinnell integrated the concept of institutional sustainability into their budgeting, financial forecasts, governance and strategic planning. In doing so, they anticipate what the College will face by looking at key metrics including, for example, admission rate, net tuition revenue by student, percentage of no-need students, total gifts per year, and change in per cent revenue by source.

     So, actual long term planning that doesn’t depend on maintaining a 15% growth rate indefinitely, and everyone can see what the budget plan is. There won’t be any “we’re fiscally solid” announcements within a week of “we need to fire almost everyone” announcements at Grinnel.

      Sadly, what Grinnel is doing won’t be copied and modeled anywhere, and hence the title of today’s essay. Why don’t other colleges prepare for what’s coming? Because the only metric administration uses at most institutions is “growth”. It’s why a school with 0.6% graduation rate over 10 years is still considered a success because it grew so much. Since Grinnel isn’t growing, any administrator that looks at Grinnel will think “I’ll never get a million dollar salary using their ideas”, and then move on to look at what other schools are doing.

     That’s a shame, because most schools are engaging in policies that are guaranteed to end in complete destruction as soon as the student loan money (or the mass of students willing to indebt themselves forever) stops coming, or even simply stops coming in ever larger numbers.

      When that happens, many institutions will go bankrupt. Administration won’t care, of course, because they’ve already granted themselves golden parachutes…but someone’s going to ask “how did these schools have billions of dollars a few years ago and have nothing but abandoned buildings and a bunch of retired administrators living in mansions today?” For the sake of those administrators, I sure hope the people that ask that question don’t have guns.

      I admit that sometimes, however, I hope the people that ask that question will have guns after all. Lots of guns.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Dispelling Another Lie About Rising Tuition

By Professor Doom

Admin:  “Due to cutbacks in funding, we need to freeze pay for faculty again this year…”
--I probably hear this every other year. The excuse doesn’t stop admin from getting raises, of course.

     Tuition rises and rises, and admin is forever spewing lies about why tuition is ever skyrocketing up. One of the most common lies is the tuition money needs to be used to pay for all the regulations, but this is so obvious, so intellectually dishonest and hypocritical, that it’s fun and easy to dispel.

Admin: “We’ll need to raise tuition again, because the cutbacks will cause a budget shortfall…”
--I doubt a college student anywhere managed to make it through a 4 year degree without hearing this at least twice. The shortfall, of course, doesn’t stop admin from hiring more administration and support staff.

     Another popular lie justifying a tuition raise is the ol’ “they’re cutting back on funding” ruse. I concede a small truth to this, at least, perhaps, in one particular year or other, but overall? No way, not even close.

      Allow me to re-quote a report I cited earlier, a report written, I must add, by administrators in higher education:

“…In 1970-71, what was then the U.S. Office of Education awarded roughly 1.6 million grants and loans to low- and middle-income families. In 2013-14, the U.S. Department of Education reported nearly 20 million such awards. The amount of money disbursed grew from $1.6 billion to more than $160 billion."
--emphasis added.

     Hmm, so over the course of the last 40 years, funding has increased by a factor of 100. That’s…not much of a decrease. This is just looking at funding from the Federal government, of course, but someone else, a law professor, has also taken the time to see that at the state level overall funding has increased, even as admin has cried ever louder that their funding is being cut.

     Most amazing, the professor’s article made it to the New York Times, albeit as an “opinion” piece…though his calculations are about as much opinion as determining if water is wet:

In fact, public investment in higher education in America is vastly larger today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was during the supposed golden age of public funding in the 1960s. Such spending has increased at a much faster rate than government spending in general. For example, the military’s budget is about 1.8 times higher today than it was in 1960, while legislative appropriations to higher education are more than 10 times higher.

--he’s referring to state legislation here.

     There really was a time when the money I made mowing lawns would cover my tuition. I grant that I was mowing a lawn a day, but the fact still remained I could cover the several hundred bucks of tuition with basic work…and my professors weren’t starving, or clearly living at the poverty level. One of my professors was even Dean for a year, making an extra $2,000 (if memory serves, it’s been a long time)…not that I ever saw him in that capacity while I was getting my education as a student, since Deans really have little to do with students or education. 

     Today, of course, most teachers in higher education are living at the poverty level, while Deans are professional mercenaries that make 3x to 15x what the faculty make…and still have nothing to do with education.

     It really isn’t that tough to conjecture where the money is going in higher education, and that tuition increases have very little to do with “cutbacks in funding”, at least compared to the obvious guess.

     That said, there is a way of looking at things so that ‘cutback in funding’ has occurred, despite the numbers:

While the college-age population has not increased since the tail end of the baby boom, the percentage of the population enrolled in college has risen significantly, especially in the last 20 years. Enrollment in undergraduate, graduate and professional programs has increased by almost 50 percent since 1995. As a consequence, while state legislative appropriations for higher education have risen much faster than inflation, total state appropriations per student are somewhat lower than they were at their peak in 1990.

      So, the huge growth in the student base hasn’t quite matched the huge growth in funding…”per student”, then, the funding has dropped, possibly as much as 25% on a per student basis. Still, this is easily overmatched by the grotesque increase in class sizes. Factor in the class sizes of 20, from a generation ago, to hundreds, even a thousand, that is more typical today, and it’s hard to see how that “reduced” funding is any issue, even per student.

It is disingenuous to call a large increase in public spending a “cut,” as some university administrators do, because a huge programmatic expansion features somewhat lower per capita subsidies.
--whoa, you’re calling administrators “disingenuous”? That’s dangerous, professor, you’re using your real name here, after all.

            Having established, then, that there is no real budget cut here, the professor does as I and many others have done, and tried to follow the money. He looks very carefully at another institution, and the dots are easily connected:

Even more strikingly, an analysis by a professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona, found that, while the total number of full-time faculty members in the C.S.U. system grew from 11,614 to 12,019 between 1975 and 2008, the total number of administrators grew from 3,800 to 12,183 — a 221 percent increase.

     Think about those numbers for a second: in 1975, the school system operated perfectly fine with about 12,000 faculty and 4,000 administrators. Forty years later, the student population has easily doubled and then some, increased by over 250,000 students. They still have  nearly the same number of faculty, now teaching the extra quarter of a million students in auditorium-sized classes…but now you need more than triple the administrators. And tuition has gone up, 20 times as much as in 1975?

     Administrative pay has skyrocketed, and skyrocketed again, just to keep pace with tuition. How’s faculty pay working out? Let’s take a look:

Salaries of full-time faculty members are, on average, barely higher than they were in 1970. Moreover, while 45 years ago 78 percent of college and university professors were full time, today half of postsecondary faculty members are lower-paid part-time employees, meaning that the average salaries of the people who do the teaching in American higher education are actually quite a bit lower than they were in 1970.

     So, once again, someone besides an administrator follows the money in higher education and learns that no, it’s not overpaid tenured faculty, and no, it’s not burdensome government regulations, and no, it’s not cutbacks in funding that require tuition to rise, burdening students with ever more crushing debt. None of the  things administration says are true.

     It’s the administration.

     The only real question is: just how many people need to learn what’s really going on in higher education before anything will be done about it?


Friday, May 22, 2015

Higher Education and the Slave Economy

By Professor Doom

A recent column by Noam Chomsky, titled The Death of American Universities, touches on what’s happening as we revert to a slave economy. In a speech, Alan Greenspan discussed how it being increasingly difficult to get a steady job was a good thing for the economy. Chomsky responds:

“At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more.”

            The majority of teachers in higher education are adjuncts: part-time, no benefits, minimally paid workers with no job security. It has been key to the debasement of higher education into mostly being the same material taught in high school or much lower. With no security, the professors have no means of standing up to administrators that insist another chapter be taken out, that grades be inflated further, that the professors certify that the students are eminently qualified to take over the professor’s job, for much less pay.

Friend: “After deducting for rent and some food, I clear $20 a month.”
--I have friends working at Wal-Mart, just barely betting by. Yes, they can save money, but a single visit to a health clinic wipes out a year of “savings”. This is not a plan for the future. Lose that job for a month, and that wipes out the savings from 3 years or more of life…there’s no future in this.

             What’s happening to professors in higher education is happening elsewhere. It’s not just the loss of tenure, it’s literally being unable to know if you’re going to have a job 3 months from now, even when you’re in a business (Wal-Mart or higher education) that’s obviously still raking in money.

            People now start life in debt from student loans. They *need* some sort of security so that they can plan to pay off those debts; miss a few payments, and these debts balloon, a real problem because it’s after a certain point the loans become impossible to pay back with a minimum wage job. 

            Adjuncts are simply worse off than most, because they’re deeper in debt, having also paid for graduate school. It’s not simply the lack of security that’s a problem here, it’s that adjuncts are being forced into behaving unethically, being part of the problem of turning higher education into a fraud, a fraud that creates more people that start life in debt.

“That’s the way you keep societies efficient and healthy from the point of view of the corporations. And as universities move towards a corporate business model, precarity is exactly what is being imposed. And we’ll see more and more of it.”

            Yes, precarity, the lack of any job security, is the norm now today. We’re a nation of truck drivers, paid for use. The microsecond there’s no need for something to be delivered, that’s the microsecond the truck driver stops getting paid. Most drivers live fairly close to the edge; once driverless vehicles become the norm (already they’re crossing the country, and there’s an automated truck on the road in Nevada, so perhaps another decade or so), I wonder what will happen to them.

      It’s no different than adjuncts, paid when there are 40 students to fill the classroom to capacity, and unemployed if there are only 39 students…it doesn’t matter if it only takes 3 students’ tuition to cover the adjunct pay, profits must be maximized, always.

            You can’t have a precarious job and have debt payments that must be regularly paid. It’s that simple. But the only jobs left are precarious.

Son of Deceased Friend: “Hey, you knew him for 20 years. Can you help pay some of the funeral expenses? He had a lot of bills.”
--in times past, when the family elder died, the family gathered to split the inheritance. There are legendary tales in my family about fights over inheritance, from generations ago, and friends  have comparable stories from their family’s past. Those fights don’t happen anymore, but it’s not an improvement: now people die with nothing—or less!--and the family gathers to figure out how to pay the bills.

     Adding insult to the injury of precarity is the starving professors get to see the fruits of their labor swiped by administration:

            That’s one aspect, but there are other aspects which are also quite familiar from private industry, namely a large increase in layers of administration and bureaucracy. If you have to control people, you have to have an administrative force that does it. So in US industry even more than elsewhere, there’s layer after layer of management — a kind of economic waste, but useful for control and domination.

            The author is correct that the massive increase in administration in higher education is paralleled in business…little surprise since higher education has been adopting the corporate model over the years.

            How does this relate to the slave economy? People don’t think they’re slaves today, and, in a few ways, they’re not. Previously I addressed the “two tier” legal system, where most of the slave class has markedly less rights than the 1% class, where much of the slave class owns nothing, where slaves no longer are entitled to the fruits of their labor. But there’s one more thing that makes a slave: no ability to accumulate capital.

            I’ve noted before that, although professors teach classes responsible for bringing in a million dollars of tuition revenue, the professors themselves only get a few thousand, a tiny percentage. Many professors are getting just barely enough—barely!—to scrape by. All the profits go the corporation/institution which distributes them to an ever more bloated administrative class.

“And the same is true in universities. In the past thirty or forty years, there’s been a very sharp increase in the proportion of administrators to faculty and students; faculty and students levels have stayed fairly level relative to one another, but the proportion of administrators have gone way up.”

     Mr. Chomsky is a bit off here. Being intimate with higher education, I assure you the “faculty and students” levels have not stayed fairly level. Administration uses a wide array of manipulations to inflate the alleged number of faculty of an institution (for example, librarians and tutors are counted as “faculty”, among many other weird accounting procedures).     But I digress.
     Again, this is little different from the “old” slave economy, where the slave works an entire life generating money for the master, and in the end, has nothing, not even enough for a grave.

     As people realize they’re not getting enough to survive, much less build capital for their own investment, a cry is made to raise the minimum wage. I won’t go into minimum wage here, but, honestly, if minimum wage was the real solution to the actual problem, we wouldn’t have to raise it every few years…the underlying system of the slave economy will ultimately turn minimum wage into subsistence level regardless of whether it’s $10 or $100 an hour. It’s the underlying system that is flawed, not the hourly rate of pay.

“This includes professional administrators like deans, for example, who used to be faculty members who took off for a couple of years to serve in an administrative capacity and then go back to the faculty; now they’re mostly professionals, who then have to hire sub-deans, and secretaries, and so on and so forth, a whole proliferation of structure that goes along with administrators. All of that is another aspect of the business model.”

As I’ve said before, mandating that faculty and administration be interchangeable is key to fixing higher education. What I haven’t said before, I’ll say now: we need to do the same thing in our system. While making “owners” and “employees” interchangeable is a bit unworkable I admit, our political system is clearly as badly arranged as our higher education system. If you don’t believe me, consider how many elections have basically boiled down to “Which Clinton” or “Which Bush” or “Which Skull and Bones member?” should get the vote…and how it doesn’t even matter, since “both” sides believe heavily in massive wars, massive debts, and massive bail-outs of too-big-to-fail and too-big-to-jail corrupted institutions. The slave caste is shut out of the political system as much as faculty are shut out of higher education.

Alas, Chomsky finished up on a flat note:

“You know better than I do what has to be done, the kind of problems you face. Just got ahead and do what has to be done. Don’t be intimidated, don’t be frightened, and recognize that the future can be in our hands if we’re willing to grasp it.”

The article is definitely a great read, although I wish he’d offered more solutions beyond “do what needs to be done”—I’m sure folks in the WWII concentration camps could have gone far with that advice. “Don’t be frightened or intimidated by those guys with the machine guns, the future is in your hands!” Having seen facult after faculty stand up and try to stop admin from debasing education, only to be terminated in short order, “you know what to do” just isn’t helping. ySeriously, something better needed to be said. At least I offer a few hard fixes.

  One comment does say what needs to be done, and I have to concede it’s a valid and simple, albeit harsh, solution:

As a former prof who watched a once-great university and university program crumble under temper tantrum management, 'my way or the highway' Napoleans, bitter academics who demanded we twist and fabricate our grading to lift their class member performance ratings, recruit gang rapists to play football, etc., I say let the universities and colleges as they exist today die and let's start over. I would not send an ENEMY'S child to most colleges and universities today.

     There sure are a lot of “former prof” people that used to contribute to higher education, and, after watching it devolve year after year into the mess of today, have just walked away. Soon, students will start walking away, as well.