Expense Account

The Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System (IPEDS, a term that maybe should have been in the first book) collects sixteen bajillion data points per year on every college in the US, from enrollment to crime. It takes forever for schools to complete, and like accreditation, puts an inverse burden on schools by resources: MIT, with its thousands of employees and billions of dollars, has the same reporting burden as Mount Ida College.

One area of data collection is an itemized budget, not in any categories that the colleges would themselves recognize (salaries, lab materials, travel, and the like) but rather in categories that require a whole other layer of understanding. They are (with deeply abbreviated definitions):

  • Instruction: “…expenses of the colleges, schools, departments, and other instructional divisions of the institution and expenses for departmental research and public service that are not separately budgeted. Includes general academic instruction, occupational and vocational instruction, community education, preparatory and adult basic education, and regular, special, and extension sessions. Also includes expenses for both credit and non-credit activities.”
  • Research: “… expenses for activities specifically organized to produce research outcomes and commissioned by an agency either external to the institution or separately budgeted by an organizational unit within the institution. The category includes institutes and research centers, and individual and project research.”
  • Student Services: “… expenses for admissions, registrar activities, and activities whose primary purpose is to contribute to students emotional and physical well-being and to their intellectual, cultural, and social development outside the context of the formal instructional program. Examples include student activities, cultural events, student newspapers, intramural athletics, student organizations, supplemental instruction outside the normal administration, and student records. Intercollegiate athletics and student health services may also be included except when operated as self-supporting auxiliary enterprises.”
  • Public service: “… expenses for activities established primarily to provide non-instructional services beneficial to individuals and groups external to the institution. Examples are conferences, institutes, general advisory service, reference bureaus, and similar services provided to particular sectors of the community. This function includes expenses for community services, cooperative extension services, and public broadcasting services.”
  • Institutional support: “… expenses for the day-to-day operational support of the institution. Includes expenses for general administrative services, central executive-level activities concerned with management and long range planning, legal and fiscal operations, space management, employee personnel and records, logistical services such as purchasing and printing, and public relations and development.”
  • Academic support: “… expenses of activities and services that support the institution’s primary missions of instruction, research, and public service. It includes the retention, preservation, and display of educational materials (for example, libraries, museums, and galleries); organized activities that provide support services to the academic functions of the institution (such as a demonstration school associated with a college of education or veterinary and dental clinics if their primary purpose is to support the instructional program); media such as audiovisual services; academic administration (including academic deans but not department chairpersons); and formally organized and separately budgeted academic personnel development and course and curriculum development expenses.”
  • Operation and maintenance of plant: “… expenses for operations established to provide service and maintenance related to campus grounds and facilities used for educational and general purposes. Specific expenses include utilities, fire protection, property insurance, and similar items.”

So there’s our seven categories. Our friends at the American Institute of Research and their Delta Cost Project have looked at these categories to see which have increased in proportion in the past decade (2001 to 2011… it takes a while to do the analysis). And the results are interesting and a little surprising. First, the data table. Data are expressed in expenditure per thousand students, constant 2011 dollars spending-table

First thing to notice is that it’s good being rich. The PrR (Private Research Universities, Harvard and Duke and Stanford and the like) have been able to increase spending on everything. On the other end of the scale, public community colleges (PuCC) have had cutbacks everywhere, usually pretty substantial. They’ve had a 55% increase in research spending, but the baseline was pretty low. When you used to spend two bucks, three dollars is a fifty percent increase…

Second, the public schools (the first four categories, all beginning with Pu) are all in significant states of deferred maintenance. In every case, spending on operation and maintenance of physical environment has dropped by a meaningful amount. The private schools are keeping up appearances, but the public schools are falling apart.

Third, spending on Student Services has increased substantially in every institution type except public baccalaureate (PuB) and community colleges (PuCC). There’s a real attention to consumer satisfaction except at the lowest-level public institutions, since they all have to compete for their students. The little state colleges and community colleges are the most impacted by the commodity pricing of education (see the previous post for that), and nobody’s choosing them because of their amenities. The others are all fighting for a temporarily smaller number of undergraduates—the 18-year-old US population peaked in 2008, and is in a trough that won’t come back to those levels until the mid 2020s—and have to appeal to customers through a broader array of services.

Fourth, this focus on customer service is reflected in a greatly reduced attention to public service. If you’re inside the walls, you’re going to be taken care of, but there’s no money to spend on the great unwashed outside the moat. The town/gown divides are worse and worse, with colleges drawing up the gates and focusing internally.

Finally, private schools are spending more on instruction and on academic support than they had ten years before, while public institutions have seen a much smaller increase in instructional spending and generally a decrease in academic support.

There’s a lot of detail that the AIR report can’t get into, in part because the IPEDS data collection is so generalized. But it’s an interesting place to start as we consider why schools are moving more and more toward contingent instructors.


Not being a Marxist economist, I can’t add much to the concept of the commodity fetish, except to point out its multiple connections to contemporary higher education. The simple commodity is a product that has absolutely no differentiation by producer and no intention of a relationship between producer and consumer. A hundred pounds of milk, for instance, a standard unit of measurement in the industry. It’s picked up at the dairy, pumped into in the giant truck of other raw milk from everybody else, goes through the same processes and packaging as the milk from hundreds of other dairies, and winds up in a plastic jug in the supermarket, molecules intermingled with those from every other farm. Every dairy farmer gets the same price per unit, with no claim to unique quality being made except for a minimum threshold of purity and non-contamination. It can’t be any worse than the bottom, but it doesn’t need to be any better.

A college credit is just as commodified. As students become more mobile, as transfers become more common, the three credits you’ve accumulated in Intro Sociology at one school need to be recognized and converted into three credits of Intro Sociology at another school. The uniqueness of the experience you might have had with that teacher, the insights she led you to regarding the notions of stigma and shame, are no longer relevant; she has been eliminated from view in favor of the three credits of content she provided, and you likewise have been eliminated from view in favor of a person who owns three credits of content. Sociology and milk, uniform and impersonal products, drawn as needed from the common tank. To use my wife’s favorite word, they are fungible, non-differentiated and mutually exchangeable.

The fungibility of the commodity places downward pressure on price and on qualification of producer. If a particular dairy farmer thinks he needs $11.50 per hundredweight to break even, but the going market rate from the co-op is $11.20, then $11.20 it’s going to be, and the individual farmer gets to choose to a) lose 30 cents per hundred pounds or b) stop selling milk altogether. So too for adjunct faculty. Your Intro Sociology could be bought in the Boston Metro market for about $2,800 per three credits, so your choices are to a) teach for an embarrassingly small stipend or b) not teach at all. As long as you’re above the floor of competency, it doesn’t really matter if you’re any better.

So as the college experience is abandoned in favor of the college credit, it makes perfect sense to move to a Darwinian competition between desperate providers. The scary thing is the degree to which we’ve accepted the loss of the unique experience, are willing to settle for the quantifiable product. A college course should be a unique thing that you do, not a uniform product that you buy. But the logic of exchange consumes all other ways of thinking if we aren’t wary.

And frankly, if I think back on all of the college credits I’ve bought, how many of them were really uniquely valuable experiences? At Michigan Tech, none out of sixty. At Laney College in Oakland, a dozen out of thirty, most because of the unique brilliance of Tom Turman. At Berkeley, 27 of about 60. In grad school at UWM, maybe 36 of 54. You have to work really hard (and increasingly be really lucky) to deserve a quality premium, to be differentiated in the marketplace from the other content providers.

News sites, colleges, magazines, dairy co-ops… the place to be is on the inside. The content providers looking in from the outside will cannibalize each other, driving prices down for a chance to compete at all.


Forty Years

I graduated from high school and began college forty years ago, in 1976. So one of the constructions of the new book is to examine what’s different across those four decades.

US Population

  • 1976: 218M
  • 2016: 319M (+46%)

US Undergraduate Population

  • 1976: 9,419,000
  • 2016: 17,490,000 (+86%)

US Grad Student Population

  • 1976: 1,567,000
  • 2016: 3,025,000 (+93%)

Number of PhDs Awarded:

  • 1976: 32,923
  • 2015: 54,070 (+64%)

Percentage of Faculty Tenured or Tenure Track (according to the AAUP):

  • 1976: 28.6% tenured, 15.9% pre-tenured, 44.5% total
  • 2011: 16.6% tenured, 6.9% pre-tenured, 23.5% total (note that five years later, it’s probably even worse)

Percentage of Faculty Full-Time and Part-Time Non-TT (also according to AAUP)

  • 1976: 10.2% FT, 25.1% PT, 35.3% total
  • 2011: 15.7% FT, 41.5% PT, 57.2% total

Note that in 1976, the TT and NTT total comes to 44.5 + 35.3, or 79.8%; in 2011, it’s 23.5 + 57.2, or 80.7%. In both eras, the remaining ~20% is grad students.

So the number of undergrads, number of grad students, and number of successful PhDs have all grown more rapidly than the population as a whole, at the same time that we’ve reversed the proportion of our teaching population from permanent to contingent faculty. As we saw a few days ago (“Fifty Years of Mustangs), colleges employ the same number of people per thousand students they did twenty-five years ago; they’re just different kinds of people.

Tomorrow… commodity economics.

Forces of Normalcy

I always cringe when I hear the term “best practices,” which I think are hard to differentiate from habits. I’ve not seen much evidence of rigor in assessing the “best” in that term. It just seems to be a nice name for a kind of recipe swapping in which people take a solution from one context and apply it to another.

The world of best practices represent endless forces arrayed against change in higher education, even as calls for change are loud. Let’s look at one comprehensive state college in the northeast, about 10,000 students. Institutionally, they’re accredited by their regional oversight body. But that’s just the beginning.

This is a school with 28 undergrad and 19 master’s degree programs. And those individual programs are accredited by 25 different disciplinary or professional bodies:

  1. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology
  2. American Association for Health Education
  3. American Chemical Society
  4. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
  5. Association for Childhood Education International
  6. Aviation Accreditation Board International
  7. Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
  8. Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education
  9. Council for Exceptional Children
  10. Council on Social Work Education
  11. Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs
  12. Educational Leadership Constituent Council
  13. Federal Aviation Administration
  14. International Reading Association
  15. International Society for Technology in Education
  16. Interstate Agreement for Educator Licensure
  17. National Association for the Education of the Young Child
  18. National Association of Schools of Music
  19. National Association of Schools of Art and Design
  20. National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration
  21. National Council for the Social Studies
  22. National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education/Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation
  23. National Council of Teachers of English
  24. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
  25. Society for Health and Physical Educators

That’s 25 organizations whose job is to aim for normalcy, to make sure that the franchises don’t get too far away from the McDonalds operation manual. And that makes sense when mobility is the norm, when more than half of college students transfer from one school to another and when disciplines control faculty hiring. Standardized products are more easily taught and more easily traded, commodities broadly accepted. (We’ll talk more later about the aptness of the term “commodity” when dealing with higher ed, the perfect counter-concept to the life of the mind we hope to foster.)

For higher education to really change, we’ll have to break the iron grip of the disciplines and their societies, to allow for far more creativity and variation in the design of curricula and of student experience. We need more schools that are commonly demeaned as “boutique operations,” instead of more franchises of the big-box brands. As E. F. Schumacher put it, small IS beautiful.

Fifty Years of Mustangs

The Ford Mustang is just over fifty years old now, having first been released in 1964. The first model had a list price of just under $2,500, which equates to (heaven help us) about $18,500 now, according to inflation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A 2016 Mustang starts at a base price of about $25,000, which means that its price has increased at about 35% beyond inflation. Why is that? Because we expect more from cars than we did before. Antilock brakes, fuel injection, traction control, disc brakes, transmissions with six speeds instead of four, air bags, electronic power steering… there’s a long list of things that are standard features in every contemporary car that wouldn’t have been available at any price in 1964.

This is relevant to our purposes when we look at the American Institute of Research’s (AIR) Delta Cost Project, an examination of higher ed finance trends. In their report “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive: Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education“, they investigate the question of “administrative bloat.” The most common complaint is that higher ed executives are sucking up all the money that ought to more appropriately go to direct educational costs. But AIR has discovered that across almost all institution types, the percentage of staff within the “executive, administrative and managerial” category has remained almost perfectly level between 2000 and 2012. What HAS changed is the category labeled “professional”. To use AIR’s language,

Professional employees— such as business analysts, human resources staff, admissions staff, computer administrators, counselors, athletic staff, and health workers—are the largest group of noninstructional staff on campus. These positions typically either support the business functions of colleges and universities or provide noninstructional services to students.

To use one category of colleges, public research universities, we see the following changes in personnel per 1,000 FTE students (expressed as 1990 value/2012 value/% change):

  • Full-time faculty 62/64/+3%
  • Part -time, adjunct, graduate student faculty 50/83/+66%
  • Executive, administrative, managerial 14/11/-21%
  • Professional 53/73/+38%
  • Non-professional 114/63/-45%
  • Overall 293/294/+0.3%

So bad luck for you if your parents were higher ed clerks or secretaries or building maintenance workers, those stable working class jobs that raised families—half of those jobs are gone in the past twenty years. But the nearly 40% growth in professional jobs, people without direct student contact who direct the larger initiatives of the institution… that’s where the growth is. Those jobs pay well, require advanced degrees—many with doctorates, like all the directors of high-impact practices or sponsored research offices—and cost a ton of dough. The growth in part time, contingent faculty is the balancing factor, the three-grand-per-course compression fitting that allows the professional community to expand.

The director of undergraduate research… the coordinator of international admissions… the director of orientation and new student programs… those are the air bags and fuel injectors of higher education, unimaginable to be present in 1964, unimaginable to be absent in 2016. Let’s be direct; the salary of one professional staff member is more or less analogous to one tenure-track faculty member. But we’ve decided to increase professional staff by 40% and faculty by 3%.

The benefits of this shift to the institution are that administrators exercise more power in the name of “coordination” of all those cross-departmental projects; professional staff have no start-up costs; and professional staff can be hired, reallocated, and fired without consulting a union or a faculty senate or addressing tenure concerns. (They do, however, suck up a BUNCH of travel money…)

Howard Bowen, in his 1980 book The Costs of Higher Education, posited five laws of higher education finance, one of which is that “there is virtually no limit to the amount of money an institution could spend for seemingly fruitful educational ends.” This is as true of colleges as for cars. The 2016 Mustang is indisputably a better car than its 1964 counterpart, thanks to our contemporary expectations for performance and safety. It’s less clear whether the 2016 university is as clearly superior to its ancestors. (We’ll talk in more detail in another post to come about the ways that it IS superior—addressing the needs of a much more diverse student body, for instance—and the ways that it isn’t.)

Multiplication and Values

Seventy people at a conference, each sent by their home college to build a team and bring home an action plan.

  • 70 airfares at, let’s say, $400 — $28,000
  • 70 two-night stays at an expensive business hotel, $250 a night — $35,000
  • 70 people with meals out, not including those provided by the conference (say $50) — $3,500
  • 70 conference registrations at $630 — $44,100

So, being conservative, this conference has collectively cost the higher education community one associate professor’s salary and benefits at a good school, a total of  $110,600. And this is a small conference, one of dozens and dozens that every school sponsors every year.

I believe in what this conference promotes; that’s why I’m helping to facilitate it. But professional organizations and their conferences and their annual membership fees have proliferated in recent decades, at a collective cost of well into the billions of dollars. Really, that’s not an exaggeration. The organization that sponsors this conference collectively has, rather than the 70 attendees of this one conference, probably more like a thousand; that’s a million and a half dollars allocated just to this one organization’s work. And again, it’s intelligent and helpful work. But it’s money consciously spent on something other than direct student contact.

And the sheer number of higher ed organizations… it’s a blizzard of acronyms. NACUBO, NAICU, CCCC, AAUP, ACE, SHEEO… Pick any four or five Scrabble tiles and you can organize them into an existing higher ed professional community (It helps if you spot yourself an A for Association, and dump the Q and the Z, but even without that handicap, you’ll get something).

There’s a management aphorism that goes something like, “If you want to see an organization’s values, look at its budget.” We spend enough just on professional development (of radically mixed quality) for existing members of the community that we could easily welcome thousands of new members into that community as full tenure-track participants. So whenever you hear someone say that we’d like to pay adjuncts better, or hire another faculty member, “but we just can’t afford it,” the answer has to be understood in the context of what that institution believes that it can, and should, afford.

Taxonomy of Adjuncts

Since I’m working on a new project, you’ll get to see it develop periodically in this blog, a sort of inside view of where a book comes from. I won’t always be convinced of everything I write here… but I’ll test it out on you.

One of the things we don’t know about the adjunct army is why they do it. The faculty unionists point to the underemployed PhD who can’t find permanent position; the senior administrators point to the professional who teaches a class in her specialty area as a way of giving back and helping students see real-world application.

Who are these people, really? And in what proportion?

A recent white paper by the McKinsey Global Institute gives us some ways of thinking about it. It’s called Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy (October 2016), and you can get it online. They’re examining the nature of the independent workforce in the US and Europe, and they’ve isolated two variables they use to create a sort of taxonomy.

  • Is the gig your primary income, or a supplemental income?
  • Is the gig your preferred choice, or a necessary choice?

The research team developed code names for each of the four resulting groups.

  1. Free Agents: primary income by choice
  2. Casual Earners: supplemental income by choice
  3. Reluctants: primary income by necessity
  4. Financially Strapped: supplemental income by necessity.

So the casual earners represent the architect who teaches a computer-modeling course once a week, the accountant who teaches one class every so often on tax accounting. That’s the body of adjuncts that colleges like to show off.

The reluctants are the “road warriors,” the people who scrape together whatever kind of living they can at two or three grand per course, driving from one school to another and teaching way too much for way too little. That’s the body of adjuncts that the MLA and AAUP moan about and do so little to support.

The less visible classes are the free agents and the financially strapped. Does anyone really choose adjunct teaching as their preferred way of making their primary living? Not for long, if they aspire to things like paying their rent. I have to imagine that the quadrant of free agency represents a tiny proportion of the adjunct community.

I did discover a surprising number of financially strapped, though, a community that isn’t often discussed. For instance, a significant number of part-time faculty at a nearby college are actually non-academic employees who pick up courses as a sort of preferred community; they’re known quantities, and the school already has them in the payroll system, so it’s an easy choice.

The football coach teaches sometimes, as does the reference librarian and the marching band director and the director of digital marketing. Twenty three in total, out of a non-academic staff of a couple hundred. None of them have doctorates, or a research background… but at this school, that may not matter so much. They’re deemed to have enough background to teach athletic training or first-year writing to non-elite undergrads.

This is a college that doesn’t pay its staff enormously well anyway. Picking up an extra $2500 a semester is the difference between going to your niece’s high school graduation or not, tightening your belt at Christmas or not, making up the slack from your husband’s layoff (or his non-payment of child support). It’s a perk of employment that isn’t in the HR handbook, but makes a meaningful contribution to comfort.

Combat Narratives

We seem to have a limited vocabulary with which to describe cultural phenomena. For instance, when my wife and I bought our house, we converted an unused loft over the garage into my pool room. A room of contemplation and meditation, a room in which the pool table itself was lovingly restored, the cues are works of art, and the walls are covered in fine arts painting. A room where the stereo plays chamber music of various sorts, a room without a refrigerator and bar. And the first response of everyone who sees it is almost guaranteed to include the term “man cave.”

It is not a F*%#$)ing man cave! First off, it’s twelve feet in the air above the garage, so “cave” is kind of an ill-fit metaphor anyway. But, I mean, come on! There’s a Buddha on a stand. The balls get wiped down and the table vacuumed and re-covered after every use. There’s a freakin’ bookcase! There’s no TV or college sports pennants or coasters or Bud Light tavern signs. Pay attention to your surroundings, why don’t you!

Sorry to rant. But “man cave” is a fundamental misreading of the intentions of this space, a nearly 180-degree opposite to the work that it aspires to do.

Anyway, I’m reminded of this because every faculty member I know who has taken an administrative post, whether permanent or temporary, has had to hear the semi-joking term “going over to the dark side.” As though Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader were an apt metaphor for relatively well intentioned and relatively intelligent people trying to collectively run a school.

The literature on higher education labor is increasingly defined as a form of war story, with one side valiant and the other evil. Benjamin Ginsburg’s book The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University, and Why It Matters clearly paints administrators as some combination of misguided, naive, ruthless, rapacious and cunningly manipulative, with the poor faculty (TT faculty, by the way… the book only has two instances of “adjunct faculty” in the index) suffering untold abuses. From the other side, calls to “rise up” and become activist, often featuring the dreaded term “Solidarity!” that sounds so sweet and accomplishes so little.

What if we were to look at the status of higher education without resorting to combat narratives? What if we were to just look, to pay attention to our surroundings, to understand that colleges are an expression of our larger culture? The gig economy is everywhere, whether adjunct faculty or Uber. The “creative disruption” and “entrepreneurial spirit” we celebrate works against lifetime careers of all sorts. “Intelligent systems” make trivial actions easy, whether campus e-mail or looking up restaurants, while remaining neutral to the work that matters. And marketing drives everything, the parasite of advertising having grown stronger than its host. Higher ed is not some pristine outpost being fought over by its inhabitants; it is part of its society. As sociologist Anthony Giddens said, it helps to shape the rules that it then operates under.

What if we were to decide that the important story was not just whether A defeats B, but instead whether we actually understand the systems that we ourselves have helped to create? I mean, most colleges aren’t for profit, so nobody’s making money off not hiring permanent faculty. It’s not like Walmart where the investors profit from “associates” working for nine bucks an hour. And colleges certainly haven’t been afraid to hire tons of people, with the National Center for Educational Statistics reporting an 8% increase in total higher ed permanent employment in just the four years from 2007 to 2011. They’re just hiring a different kind of people, directors of undergraduate research and associate deans of high-impact practices and instructional technology staff. Why is that?

Cultures are hard to explain succinctly, and the combat narrative offers an easy entry to the conversation, just as the competition narrative of politics always overshadows the cultural narrative of policy. But I think it’s a bad metaphor, like the man cave, not only inapt but in fact counterproductive, obscuring what’s there in favor of an image we carry from elsewhere.