The Education Conflation (or how the problems at the top tell us nothing about the bottom)

Expenditure per student at American private research universities grew 23% in the past decade, controlled for inflation. Since the cumulative inflation rate for that period is also in the mid-20s, you can roughly say that expenditure per FTE student rose at twice the rate of inflation (that ignores compounding, but whatever: we’re being lazy here).  Is it cost disease, the amenities war, bloated administration, skyrocketing demand for a scarce resource, or a symptom of an increasingly unequal society that is also exploding the luxury yacht market? Well, I’ll let you decide.

So second question, how much did expenditure per student at American public four-years increase in that same period? Whatever you answered, you’re probably wrong. Over that entire decade, spending per student barely rose at all. Or rather, expenditure rose at exactly the rate of inflation. Public Bachelor’s institutions spent $18,165 in inflation adjusted dollars per FTE in 2000. They spent $18,635 per FTE in 2010, for a net spending increase of 2.5% increase over an entire decade.

Community colleges? They have actually reduced expenditure per student by 4.7%. In other words, institutional spending per student is growing slower than inflation. In real terms the cost to educate students is shrinking.


Now, I’m not defending how we kept that expenditure down. We did it to a large extent with adjunct labor, deferred maintenance, reduced aid, and other methods that are out of line with long-term sustainability and mission. The community college system, in particular, is coming apart at the seams, and a big piece of that decrease in expenditure comes from the ongoing California implosion (one out of every four community college students attends college in California).

Reading Martin Weller’s Uncle MOOC post, however, it occurs to me that this is a big part of our current malaise. Those that make policy, headlines — those that get startup funding, run foundations, and even those that write for the major news outlets are often from the right hand side of the above graph. In particular, many come from that massive outlier in educational spending, the private research university. And this explains to me at last why I keep seeing eduprenuers talking about our out-of-control spending when the main problem has been out-of-control cuts, why I keep hearing about administrative bloat when our administrative costs have been remarkably stable. The assumption is what ails the elite university must be what is killing the less prestigious college downstream.

We find these conflations throughout our discourse on education — the NYT story that starts with the student $100,000 in debt, and sees this giving insight to other students taking out loans, never noting that almost all debt over $100,000 is due to graduate medical programs, law degrees, or vanity visual arts programs at elite design schools. The research school assumption that excellent teaching must lie primarily at excellent research institutions. The belief that most professors who lecture in public four-years and masters institutions lecture the way they have at Harvard or Yale, to hundreds of students at a time, with no interaction (Spoiler: most community colleges have been doing active learning for decades).

How much of the current weirdness of this MOOC moment is due to the fact that the people running the world have very little idea what the other 80% of classrooms look like?

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