Bernie and Bloat

At the Democratic National Debate on Saturday night, Presidential Candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders said, in explaining why college tuition has risen faster than inflation, "I understand in many universities [there are] a heck of a lot of vice presidents who earn a big salary." He also cited new residence halls and football stadiums, but the issue of "administrative bloat" is a favorite meme for critics of higher education expense escalation.

Is administrative bloat real? And to what extent is growth in administrative salary lines responsible for the increased cost of higher education?

Many theories exist about higher ed tuition price escalation. My view is as a practitioner who must develop and balance a budget. No doubt about it, the sheer number of administrative positions has grown in the last two decades as higher education's programs, services and liabilities have expanded geometrically. While some egregious examples do exist, for the most part, the cost growth is not because of carelessness or obtuseness on the part of institutions, but rather, a response to regulatory, accreditation and other external demands including significantly increased attention to risk management which requires more and different personnel.

At Trinity in Washington, where I have been president since 1989, the personnel roster has certainly grown not only because overall enrollment has more than doubled in the last two decades, but also, because the academic and regulatory environment has changed considerably. We are a lean operation, and we strive to control costs at every turn; I'm somewhat notorious for refusing to fund cookie trays at meetings out of respect for the students who take on great debt to pay for college, and we should not eat their investment. We must be conscious of the fact that a student is in debt for almost every dollar we spend.

But even in a cost-conscious place like Trinity, expenses have risen dramatically in ways that we cannot avoid, particularly in the areas of technology, specialized accreditation, risk management and regulatory compliance. Some of the big cost drivers include:

Technology: in 1989, the big issue was chalk supplies in classrooms; today, we are calculating the cost of improved technologies in every classroom, imaging microscopes in laboratories and a simulation lab for nursing. Even while Trinity remains largely a classroom-based instructional environment, the faculty and student demands for state-of-the-art technologies to support teaching, learning and research are considerable, and all of that technology requires personnel to support and maintain the equipment and software, train the users and manage the increasingly complex systems --- the learning management system (we use Moodle), the library technology, the websites and social media platforms, the integration of voice and data communications, the expansive use of video, audio and imaging capacity.

In the same way, administrative and information technologies have grown expansively, in some cases propelled by requirements of auditors and regulators. Hardly a day goes by without a demand for new software for everything from managing classroom scheduling and donor relations to student life case management and data analytics for improved academic advising. We evaluate every request carefully, trying to assess how much benefit students will receive from a given technology investment. I won't invest in software that only makes administrative life easier, there must be a true benefit for students, which includes cost reduction.

Specialized Accreditation: politicians have only limited understanding of comprehensive institutional accreditation, an arcane topic that gets headlines in the higher ed press and regulatory missives with an occasional Congressional grenade lobbed in for good measure. Nobody in the policy realm seems to know a darn thing about specialized accreditation which is required for almost all academic programs that lead to professional licenses, e.g., teachers, nurses, lawyers, doctors, occupational therapists, counselors, the list goes on and on.

Some universities with a large roster of licensure programs have dozens of specialized accreditors. Each of these accreditors have rules that dictate everything from the curriculum and construction of syllabi to the specifications for laboratories and clinical experiences, and, most importantly, the number and qualifications of personnel -- not only faculty but also administrative positions supporting the program. In some cases, the specialized accreditors protect a guild system that rejects any notion of sharing of resources across disciplines; hence, every specially accredited program requires its own program director, clinical coordinator, administrative assistant and lab specialist, as well as faculty. We have even experienced a specialized accreditor refusing to allow a program director to oversee programs at two different degree levels, and instead, requiring two expensive positions where one person could have achieved the same goals.

Colleges and universities have no choice, and the public has little choice: if we want to have licensed professional healthcare professions and other professionals, we have to comply with the expensive requirements of the specialized accreditors.

Risk Management: when I was in law school in the mid-1970s, I did double duty as a residence hall director at Trinity. I had common sense but little else to prepare me for the job; fortunately, my students and I made it through those years largely unscathed. Today, however, basic risk management practices for residence life and all of student life demand well-credentialed professionals who have the training and experience to manage all of the many issues that students present each day.

Campus Security has become a big business and hugely expensive. Campus Health Services with both physical and mental health professionals are essential. The Athletics Program must have trainers and other support personnel. And the days of driving students to games or events off-campus are over; every trip requires professional transportation and appropriate oversight by trained personnel to ensure student safety. Insurance premiums keep rising. In the same vein, our costs for legal services have grown expansively, adding in-house legal counsel where once we had an outside firm doing largely pro-bono representation for the college, and also adding specialized legal services for labor and litigation issues.

Local Regulations: the sheer cost of doing business with the city has grown tremendously in two decades, particularly with regard to campus master planning, zoning, construction and related permitting requirements. While Trinity's story is localized in the District of Columbia, the issues exist for universities in every city, especially since cities have increasingly come to view universities as sources of revenue.

15 years ago, when we built the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports, our first new building in 40 years, the cost of compliance with city zoning and construction rules was relatively modest. However, three years ago, when we started planning and construction of the new Trinity Academic Center (replacing an 80-year-old science building) the changes in the city's regulatory environment presented many new regulatory costs and drove up the associated professional fees. As is also true with risk management, the political discussion of the escalation of tuition is agnostic about the rising expenses for lawyers, insurance and local fees. A proposed new D.C. law for payment of Family Leave benefits would add approximately $200,000 in expense for Trinity even though we already pay the same benefits through our existing personnel system; the proposed bill would tax employers regardless of their existing benefits.

Federal regulations: Yes, you knew this was coming! Federal regulation has grown expansively in the last two decades, and each new rule requires someone (or several someones) to oversee implementation and reporting. At Trinity, because we are relatively small and devoted to cost control as much as possible, we try to allocate the cost of new regulations to existing personnel, but each new iteration of federal rules adds hours of staff time, and at some point, additional personnel become necessary. For example, the new Title IX rules required every campus to have a Title IX coordinator, and for many small schools like Trinity, that position became part of the duties of an existing administrator. However, as the regulatory demands on the topic of sexual assault have multiplied, we are considering the need to create a full-time position, and many universities have created not only one position but several, creating full-staffed Title IX offices. Sometimes, regulations can also create barriers to effective cost control. For example, with regard to online courses, requirements for registration in every single state where a student resides who might be taking an online course is very expensive and a real dis-incentive to consider online instruction as a means to reduce costs.

Each university may have a different story to tell on these and other topics of cost drivers, but in the end, the complaint that higher education is needlessly, mindlessly, recklessly spending money on big administrative salaries with no purpose whatsoever is a strawman. The real drivers of higher education's price escalation are the administrative and regulatory factors indicated above, as well as these major social and economic forces:

The Cost of Access: making higher education more accessible to more historically marginalized populations, notably, low income students of color, is a noble national goal and one that we certainly subscribe to at Trinity, where our student body is 95% African American and Latina, and 80% of our full-time students receive Pell Grants. At the same time, however, our experience certainly reveals that welcoming large numbers of low income students is expensive in several ways. First, the sheer cost of institutional financial aid has grown tremendously, and this cost is subsidized by tuition. At Trinity, our institutional aid now approaches $10 million annually, which is a big expense for a $35 million operation; we hold our discount rate to 40% of full-time tuition, which at $22,390 is considerably less than other private universities.

Second, many low income students come from under-performing public schools and need considerably more academic and wrap-around supports to succeed in college. Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin, an advocate for free college, wrote an excellent op-ed in the New York Times on the real problem of hunger and homelessness among low income college students. Ensuring that the collegiate environment can take a student from access to successful degree completion is an expensive proposition that has not received enough attention in the national college cost debate.

State Dis-Investment: As Hillary Clinton aptly pointed out in the debate, the states have been systematically dis-investing in public higher education for many years, and this fact is the primary reason why state tuitions have risen so dramatically. In fact, the clamor for "free college" might not be so loud had the states continued to fund their public colleges and universities as they once did. Ironically, many public institutions are now so expensive that it's actually more affordable for a low income student to attend a private university like Trinity where we work hard to keep a great higher education accessible and affordable despite the many cost pressures.

Bottom line: administrators in higher education are easy targets, but the attacks are hugely unfair to the people who are laboring mightily (at Trinity, often six days a week) to make sure that students are safe, have enough financial aid, advised properly, able to get the services they need, and that their institutions have the technologies, risk management practices, licenses and infrastructures considered essential for modern higher education. Treating all of this as somehow frivolous or wasteful reveals the ignorance of the politicians and pundits whose cheap and easy solutions denigrate the academic workforce. Those who think they have solutions should come spend time with the people who actually do the work. They will have their eyes open and will leave exhausted.