Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to — by and large — eliminate existing student debt and, going forward, provide free tuition at two-year and four-year public universities has, putting it lightly, a few challenges. Missing from much of the mainstream analysis, however, is a psychological point that should not be forgotten: the growth of the administrative apparatus and its effect on excellence.
When the government provides what is essentially a blank check for higher education, the quality of our students’ learning environment will, over time, degrade. It will degrade because administrators, whose ratio to faculty increasingly takes on absurd proportions, will seek, naturally enough, to expand their roles and responsibilities at the schools.
The proliferation of “initiatives” and boards and commissions at colleges is just a natural tendency of university administrators to justify and enlarge their function. So what we tend to see happen are all sorts of task forces designed to look at this or that problem at a school — even when there is no problem. In short, the administrators will have the time of their lives trying to enlarge their roles.
A brief look at the data behind higher education provides evidence for this argument. From 1993 to 2007, the number of administrators for every 100 students rose by an astounding 39%. In contrast, the number of professors and researchers per 100 students rose only 18%.
In addition, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2014-15 school year, administrative expenses reached a staggering $122.3 billion. Compare that with $148 billion spent on instructional (i.e. teaching) costs.
Warren’s proposal is largely silent on measuring the quality of students’ education. Since we know that more money does not correspond to the hiring of stronger, better teachers — or, crucially, wiser administrative leadership — this is a tremendous defect in her plan.
The American education system is, perhaps, the most important, enduring policy area our legislators have never gotten right. There are no quick fixes or finance schemes that will solve the problems we face. We need educational policy plans crafted with wisdom and prudence, cornerstone virtues lacking in Warren’s proposal altogether.
Image credit: Evan El-Amin