It is no surprise that the skyrocketing cost of college has created a $1.7 trillion dollar student debt crisis, leaving many prospective students to question the worth of a college degree. Inflation-adjusted tuition has more than tripled since the 1970s, which many universities defend by pointing toward the increasing demand for college degrees, higher costs of student housing and facilities and the overall lack of federal funding. However, even with substantial endowments and the rise in tuition, public universities like UC Riverside continue to be underfunded. The way UCR’s financial reports are buried under a series of unnavigable links and broken up into several categories and periods for each fiscal year makes it difficult to isolate the true cause of tuition increases. As we conclude a remote academic year without tuition cuts, we must re-evaluate the cost of higher education and call for more financial transparency from universities.
Public research institutions like UCR spend public money, but information about their budgets is either vague or difficult to understand. For outsiders with no prior knowledge of finance, jargon-filled financial reports are hard to find and challenging to decipher. On the other extreme, easier-to-obtain budget overviews only contain a series of vague charts. Without financial transparency, it is difficult to elucidate what portion of instruction costs are actually some other activity, such as research. In 2011, the American Enterprise Institute conducted a study on college cost efficiency and found that “40 percent of reported instruction costs at both public and private research universities are really research costs.” If universities like UCR are lumping together instructional and research spending, it is unfair for students to foot the bill for activities that do not directly benefit their education. There needs to be more financial transparency in higher education – students deserve to know how their tuition dollars are spent.
More financial transparency will also help identify the true cause of tuition hikes. A popular scapegoat for the rise in tuition is “administrative bloat” — a term coined after universities started increasing the number of administrative positions at double the rate of professors. According to a New York Times financial columnist, Ron Lieber, the majority of the money allocated for educating undergraduates is used for staff and faculty salaries and benefits. Although universities correlate the rise in administrators with the rise in student needs and programs, the blame on administrative bloat is not placed without good reason.
Especially at large public schools like UCR, administrative titles are confusingly vague: Assistant to Associate Dean, Assistant Director and Administrative Specialist are some examples. It is unclear what these positions do, what their salary is and what portion of students’ expenses fund their salaries and benefits. If universities are going to continue to defend their overgrown administrative bureaucracy, they need to be more transparent about what administrators actually do, why they are necessary and how much they are paid relative to faculty members.
All too often, universities approach the issues students face by hiring more administrators. If students advocate for more mental health resources on campus, they’ll hire several executive assistants to the mental health coordinator. Or if the school is pressured to increase student diversity, the university will launch programs to promote diversity, with an excessive number of administrators running it. Even with the supposed boost in administrative support, academics and student welfare are not getting any better. This year serves as a notable outlier, but even prior to the pandemic, many students have questioned the worth of four-year universities — especially in comparison to more affordable options for higher education, such as transferring from a community college.
The truth is, the quality of education at a large public university parallels that of a neighboring community college. Many attest that community college courses have the same degree of academic rigor as their university counterparts. Additionally, community college professors are hired to focus on teaching, rather than juggling research and teaching like many professors do at UCR. While there are a number of reasons why attending a four-year university is beneficial, if the quality of education is the same as a community college, there shouldn’t be such a drastic price difference. This shows that students aren’t paying for quality: they are funding the agenda of their university administration.
There is no doubt that higher education has financially failed students and their families. As students, we invest our time, money and trust in these esteemed institutions to continue our education. The least universities owe to us is honesty and transparency in where our money is going. Although the debate about the cost of college is much more nuanced than a single reason, one thing is for sure: universities are prioritizing profit over students, and we are quite literally paying the price.