A damning indictment of higher ed’s ‘burrowcrats’

A damning indictment of higher ed’s ‘burrowcrats’

You can bet the handwringing among Pennsylvania college administrators will be going into overdrive on news that national college enrollment numbers are hitting epic lows.

But you can also bet that you won’t see very much self-reflection among those same administrators in the higher education industry whose spendthrift ways certainly have played no small role in the decline.

Preliminary data released this week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show national undergraduate enrollment is down 3.2 percent this fall. The decline was 3.4 percent a year ago. Since 2019, the enrollment decline has been 6.5 percent.

A research center official says that if the numbers hold, they would represent the largest decline in college enrollment in “at least the last 50 years” in this country.

Just this month, the beleaguered 14-school Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) reported the largest one-year enrollment drop in more than a decade, down 5.4 percent from 2020. It’s scrambling to make itself relevant.

The University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, among others, also have been experiencing enrollment challenges.

Of course, the educratric establishment has been blaming everything from declining high school graduation rates to insufficient taxpayer support at the state level for higher education’s census woes. Oh, and lest we forget, there’s been the Covid-19 effect.

But Michael Poliakoff sees things a tad differently. He’s the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).

“Our colleges and universities, once widely called ‘the envy of the world,’ are doing a fine job of engineering their own breakdown,” he recently wrote. “As Pogo famously said, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us.’”

Some of the tarnished nuggets from Poliakoff’s damning indictment (first published in The Hill this month):

“The average inflation-adjusted sticker price to attend a public four-year college or university has nearly tripled since 1990—outpacing even the cost of health care—with no signs of abating,” he warns.

“The higher education industry often complains that cutbacks in state funding forces them, reluctantly, to collect more money from students,” Poliakoff reminds. “But the beast is hardly starving. The U.S. trails only Luxembourg in higher education spending per student.

“In fact, the real culprit is the unwillingness of higher education leaders to control spending,” the ACTA head continues, noting that an examination of publicly available data from more than 1,500 four-year colleges and universities found “that even when state money is generous, tuition prices rise.”

In fact, we long have argued, it gives educrats better cover to raise their prices.

“Even worse” Poliakoff argues, “those dollars increasingly support a sprawling campus bureaucracy that does little to improve the nation’s anemic four-year graduation rates of 41 percent at four-year public institutions and 56 percent at four-year private, nonprofit institutions.”

“From 2010 to 2018, public institutions spent a total of $112 billion (adjusted for inflation) on student services—a category with a multitude of programs, including recreation, counseling and diversity and inclusion initiatives—even though such expenditures do little to improve graduation rates,” he stresses.

So, who “benefited most from this post-Great Recession higher education spending spree?” Poliakoff asks. “Highly compensated senior administrators did—the ones overseeing the spending.”

Citing the National Center for Education Statistics’ database, from 2012 to 2018, he says salary outlays for business and financial operations staff rose by 33 percent compared to only 10 percent for full-time professors.

“These findings reflect higher education’s continuing shift toward reliance on less-credentialed instructional staff and the expanding footprint of specialized (read: expensive) non-academic offices,” Poliakoff wrote.

Consider these folks not just the bureaucrats but what we’ll coin as “burrowcrats” – the deeply entrenched of the higher education establishment.

Additionally, an ACTA study found (controlling for levels of state appropriations to public colleges) that the nationwide growth in spending on student services and administration has directly contributed to increased in-state tuition each year since the Great Recession.

“At the average public institution (including average tuition, enrollment, student services per-student spending and annual growth in student services spending), every additional dollar spent on student services per student is associated with 40 cents more in tuition,” Poliakoff noted.

And neither does “the excuse that most students don’t pay full price stand up to scrutiny,” he added.

“Increases in tuition were correlated with higher average net price, suggesting that tuition discounting has not kept pace with increases and serving as a reminder that sticker price still represents real dollars out of the pockets of students and families—especially those in the middle class, who get little or no scholarship money.”

Poliakoff says his group’s investigation will be unwelcome news for those college leaders accustomed to blaming the government for revenue shortfalls and “is also evidence that instead of making smart budgetary choices during the last major economic downturn, universities chose to finance unnecessary growth.”

PASSHE certainly resembles that remark, does it not? Perhaps a non-PASSHE school near you does, too.

Poliakoff’s bottom line:

“Higher education’s reckless spending over several decades has thrown millions of Americans into debt. The impending catastrophe of educational debt will pummel an economy working hard to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The victims will not only be the millions of Americans holding loan debt, but a nation that can no longer find the educational opportunities on which its progress depends.”

It’s a damning indictment, indeed, that will turn administrative handwringing into even more administrative rationalizations.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).