Op Ed on Funding in Higher Education

The New York Times published an op-ed by CU Boulder professor Paul Campos about funding in higher education. Campos claims that funding is not actually a problem because overall funding has gone up over the past few decades. This claim has been subject to a great deal of criticism.

I would say that much of the criticism seems quite well founded. In particular, Campos’ assertion is that military expenditures are 1.8 times higher than in 1960 while education expenditures are 10 times higher is wildly disingenuous. Overall spending is not the relevant metric to compare. Rather, per capita spending (per student for universities and per soldier for the military) would be a much better metric. The number of college students is far higher than it was in 1960 (when many colleges were still closed to women and ethnic minorities) while the military is much smaller in terms of actual manpower (though not firepower). Campos also doesn’t address the problem that sudden severe funding cuts can have a hugely negative effect on higher education when a gradual planned decrease could potentially be weathered much better. Cuts could mean that contingent faculty are not renewed and classes must be canceled, which could hurt students in any number of ways.

Professors can only handle so many students at once before the quality of education starts flagging, so education spending is going to scale roughly linearly with student number. The CHE post mentions that per-student appropriations have in fact fallen significantly over the past 30 years. Furthermore, massive increases on spending on things like administration (some increase was probably needed but much of it probably wasn’t), athletics, and expensive student facilities mean that even less money is able to go to actually support the academic mission of the universities (Campos talks about this, but I thought it was important to mention again here).

Elite private universities can use the excuse that tuition, fees, room and board are set as a ceiling for what students can pay. Wealthy students’ tuition money is used to offset losses from students who need financial aid. Public universities often offer much less generous aid packages, so their increases in tuition have a much more serious effect on their students. It seems difficult to argue that state money has no effect on tuition when some flagship state universities now have to make due with less than 10% of their funding coming from the state.