Issues & Insights

Can The Care And Feeding Of College Students Go Too Far?

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The most recent whinging from progressives is about President Joe Biden’s lack of support for forgiveness of student debt. We should consider ourselves fortunate that, for once, the president is resisting a terrible idea. Never mind the moral hazard aspect of the issue – the injustice of ignoring those who dutifully saved and worked to pay for their children’s education, or the students who attended an inexpensive state college instead of an astronomically priced, prestigious Ivy League institution.

Although forgiveness does benefit some victims of a broken higher education system, it subsidizes and forgives institutions that fail in their primary mission by teaching what to think rather than how to think (thus limiting their graduates’ earning capacity), overselling useless degrees, and spending students’ tuition money on unproductive functions.

In sum, these failures transform the debt problem from a private concern into a public one. Let us explain.

According to an article in Forbes by Caroline Simon, for many years the growth in college spending has gone preferentially to administration, which includes the grossly excessive coddling of students.

In 1980-1981, instructional spending made up 41% ($20.7 billion) of expenditures at colleges, which dropped to 29% ($148 billion) in 2014-2015. By contrast, the costs of administration accounted for 24% ($13 billion) four decades ago but have grown nearly tenfold to $122 billion more recently. Together, these two categories represented a total of 67% and 53% of total costs, respectively, a very disturbing decline. The other spending has consisted mainly of facilities. But no matter how the data are analyzed, it is clear that colleges’ and universities’ spending has far outpaced inflation, and instructional spending has been shrinking as a piece of the pie.

While some part of facilities’ growth can be traced to institutional ambition, trustee and management egos, and competition to be more attractive to prospective students, the impetus for the growth of administrative costs is less obvious. Some has been necessary to comply with the proliferation of federal and state regulations, but based on feedback we received from trustees of a prominent university (who wish to remain anonymous), a picture emerges of administrators deciding that their role goes far beyond providing an education and into involvement with students’ personal issues. As their roles expand, we are hard pressed to determine the precise function of some administrators; for example, university positions currently available on higheredjobs.com include health promotion specialist; student success manager; and senior coordinator, student accountability.

Student life in general should require oversight to ensure a learning-oriented, safe, and smoothly functioning environment, to be sure, but where are the boundaries that separate the institutional responsibility from the personal? There have always been advisers and counselors – often faculty members – to advise students about the best academic path, and to assist them in coping with the stresses of being on their own in an often-competitive setting. On campuses today, however, there is a far broader support structure, the expense of which is ultimately borne by all students through tuition, which surreptitiously finds its way into their indebtedness.

It is no longer enough for a club or interest group to be given space for meetings and activities. Now all manner of ethnic, sexual orientation, religious, and racial subgroups of the student body must have permanent “safe spaces,” often with dedicated administrative staff. These individuals are often there to assist students in coping with longstanding personal issues. Too often these days, that leads to what Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff call “vindictive protectionism,” with social justice enforcers policing conversations for possible microaggressions that might possibly offend someone.

Except for health and safety, should colleges and universities be responsible for personal matters not of the institutions’ making?

Additionally, schools need staff to assure that each of innumerable diverse groups are adequately represented in each entering class; and slicing and dicing the class into identity silos requires administrators, to mediate conflicts, distribute perks, and so on.

All of this ultimately appears on the tuition bill, and hence the cost is shared by all students including those whose focus is mostly the traditional college pursuits of academics and social activity. And those tuition bills create the mountains of debt being accumulated by students, and much decried by politicians. Thus, when politicians talk of student debt forgiveness, they are wittingly or unwittingly advocating that taxpayers pick up the tab for all these non-academic college pursuits, including the incubation of identity politics.

Because it is often university academics who promote the nanny mentality, it falls to some level of management to engage the question of cost versus utility. All too often, however, a reality check is unwelcome. One board executive committee member at a very prestigious institution has shared with us how he often feels like the skunk at the picnic just for inquiring about the costs of some new center or program for a heretofore (supposedly) under-nurtured sliver of the student body.

Yet, at the same time, these academics have no problem sacrificing the training of analytical and independent thinking in favor of ideological indoctrination, and those same trustees recoil in horror at the idea of renouncing ideology in favor of a focus on preparing students for a more productive life. It is no wonder that more and more graduates struggle under their debt burden, unable to earn a prosperous living.

Until colleges set some boundaries on who is responsible for personal issues a student brings to the campus, costs, political correctness, and divisiveness will continue to grow. It is long past time for universities to return to a focus purely on the educational mission that has underpinned this country’s prosperity.

Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases. Henry I. Miller is a physician and molecular biologist. He was formerly the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy & Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a consulting professor at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies. They were undergraduates together at M.I.T.

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