How To Make Higher Education Free Without New Taxes Or More Government Spending

The headline sounds too good to be true, right? In contrast to the state of play in our bad-incentives-ridden, increasingly corrupt medical industrial complex, the drivers of out of control higher educational costs are astonishingly easy to isolate, and would actually not be hard to combat. “Higher education costs” for the most part, fund everything but education. Here is the critical bit of information from this Real News Network interview with University of California AFT president Robert Samuels: as little as 10% of university budgets go to directly educating students. Samuels outlines a clear and compelling plan to end student-debt funded activity bloat.

And of course, who does this mission creep serve? The administrators! A higher level of complexity and bigger budgets justifies more and more highly paid managers, even if all the ancillary activities add little to no value to the actual educational product.

More at The Real News

Real News Network also released the second part of its talk with Samuels, in which he discussed how universities are abusing part time workers such interns and grad students:

More at The Real News

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. allcoppedout

    I costed undergraduate delivery at 10% of the UK £9K a year years ago. A much better service could be provided for that in a combination of distance learning, teaching in hotels, using local pubs, sports clubs, community theatres, day-release from actual jobs, electronic libraries like Questia, academics working at and from home … this form of delivery would not only be cheaper and better, it could force idle academics into community delivery and projects. The sum is so easy my first year business plod-alongs can do it. The problem of me and a few mates not doing this kind of provision is a simple one of not be allowed to do so.

    So why hasn’t this happened and how has an ever-diluted HE become more and more expensive? Part of the reason, articulated years ago by an educationalist (oddly named Thatcher) stating all education had been turned into a business to be marketed on a global basis (hundreds of billions). If we did create genuinely modern HE, how would we justify the even huger fees we charge foreign students, or even get them to travel to and spend in our economies given what can be done at distance.

    Though I’m sure we could deliver better HE at 10% of the mismanaged current costs, the overall sum includes the massive rip-off of foreign students keeping such as the tatters of our trade balance bobbing along. I did an LL.B (London external) with the Rapid Results College 35 years’ ago. The material provided was of far better quality than that in my undergraduate and especially postgraduate university experience. The only things I didn’t get as an external student were the tip-offs on what was coming. I was a cop at the time and managed a first in criminal law on the basis of police training.

    In 20 years of academic programme evaluation I have seen no sign higher education other than science-technical has any job-transferable content, at least as claimed. The real truth on education is that most of it until 21 is childminding, standards are too low, focused on a tiny range of academic ability and all of it is massively expensive. In evaluation, we claim our state school standards are high – yet nearly all parents who can pay to exempt their kids from this ‘high standard’ do so (here by private education or buying a home near a good school). I’ve seen the same syllabus taught at 16 in schools and on an MBA.

    I suspect the general issue here is that we are suffering professional bloat, whether of teachers, academics, lawyers, consultants, financiers, social workers, politicians and can’t work out how to get rid of it. Let’s face it, the professionals themselves have too many sunk costs to get rid of themselves. The situation is similar to the decline of manufacturing. We can show 60% of jobs are costs and should go, but know in this stupid competition they will never return.

    1. JTFaraday

      “I have seen no sign higher education… has any job-transferable content”

      “Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep. Pencey Prep is this school that’s in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. You probably heard of it. You’ve probably seen the ads, anyway. They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence. Like as if all you ever did at Pencey was play polo all the time. I never even once saw a horse anywhere near the place. And underneath the guy on the horse’s picture, it always says: “Since 1888 we have been molding boys into splendid, clear-thinking young men.” Strictly for the birds. They don’t do any damn more molding at Pencey than they do at any other school. And I didn’t know anybody there that was splendid and clear-thinking and all. Maybe two guys. If that many. And they probably came to Pencey that way.”

  2. middle seaman

    Samuels outline offers several quite general ideas requiring more details. University administration increased in size, importance and cost. Basically, most universities took on a company model with CEO, board of directors, VPs and endless number of associate and assistant VPs. One wouldn’t be surprised if that monstrosity can be cut at least by half and salaries lowered as the same time. But, does the saved money sufficient for free undergraduate education? With the current high cost of the latter, it is far from obvious.

    Other topics mentioned as costly, and possibly redundant, by Samuels, law schools, medical schools and other professional schools cannot be thrown over board for savings sake. These schools, as well as graduate schools in many other fields, are part and parcel of higher education. As for research facilities, they are important even for undergraduate studies, they are paid for by, mainly, by government grants and most importantly, these knowledge factories are crucial to the nation and the world.

    1. Antifa

      An entire other realm of financial scandal is not covered in this presentation — college football and basketball. These are actually huge profit centers for colleges, and are run pretty much as farm leagues for the NFL and NBA. Among the highest paid individuals in each of the fifty states are the college presidents and the college football coaches.

      1. huxley

        American universities are essentially sports teams that offer degree programs. Nearly all emphasize revenues.

        Many of the players are amateurs, and many of the players are students, and slavery is illegal, technically.

  3. j gibbs

    I was struck by a statement by Samuels that the average student accumulates $26,000 in debt before leaving college. This number seems pretty low to me. My wife took on $31,000 in one year of nursing school twenty years ago. Is this $26k accurate?

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      There is a difference between the average debt, and the average debt held by indebted students. One, there are plenty of students on the daddy scholarship, and two, lower income workers are aggressively pursued by the nominal, for-profit outfits out there con people into buying courses they expect to pay back when they get that fantastic job…er career. The average costs are smaller than the non-profits largely because of the lack of infrastructure and the low number of credits taken, but the debt can’t be repaid either. Soldiers are a target of their advertisement. Apparently, they didn’t learn any skills in the military despite the recruitment ads.

      Once you consider a large group of students are racking up $0 and a few thousand dollars in debt, the $26,000 number makes sense.

  4. Jim Haygood

    E-Z financing, via government-guaranteed loans, drives up tuition costs just as surely as subsidized mortgage financing drives up house prices. It’s a feature, not a bug.

    Why do so many ex-politicians end up as university presidents (one of the most barf-inducing examples being ‘Big Sis’ Janet Napolitano, now president of U. Cal.)? Because it’s an academic-government partnership, with government providing lavish financing and de facto exemption from antitrust enforcement.

  5. Alex Tolley

    One should bear in mind that Samuels is “talking up his own book” in advocating for more direct spending for his union members. The AFT has also been, IMO, remarkably ineffective at serving its members.

    The problem for the AFT, is that the universities are looking to cut instructional costs using online courses for entry level students, that further erodes the need for lecturers.

    Having said that, universities treat their lecturer staff poorly, as on demand, temp workers, often with semester to semester contracts. Admin staff seem to multiply endlessly as fiefdoms are built to meet some required or perceived need.

    One pernicious effect of rising costs is that students perceive that grades, rather than education, is the goal, because they think that is what employers want to see. Cheating and pressure to force “grade creep” is becoming the norm, rather than the exception. But looking at who the winners and losers are in the world, who can blame them?

  6. Ted

    Wonderfully naive!

    Here’s the recipe for skyrocketing higher education costs and student debt.

    1. Devalue the dignity of work that is available in large supply to such a point that no one but the poorest residents and new, even poorer immigrants would want to do it (e.g., service work). Easily done by merely by keeping hourly wages for these way, way below the real poverty line. ( But, not regulating the workplace in terms of worker rights helps too).

    2. Engage in relentless propaganda, universally articulated by elected officials, school adminstrators, educators, and advocates that the ONLY pathway to a dignified life of adult employment is to earn a college degree. (conveniently ignoring the empirical fact that most jobs available in this and any possible future modern industrial economy do not require anything close to this kind of specialized academic training.). This effectively raises demand for access to higher education well beyond economic need, and ensures vigorous competition for the seats that are available to high school grads.

    3. Make sure the system for higher education is either a) underfunded or b) overcommitted to projects irrelevant to the project of providing undergaduate education to high school grads (actually both, and then make sure that status and pretige of everyone employed on a permanent basis is firmly tied to b), such that the only way to fund the system is by requiring students to pay for access (as the costs of servicing mission b escalate in proportion with the pursuit of “academic prestige”.

    4. Open the credit spigots through massive federal subsidies to make sure students have an income flow that will enable them to direct future income toward present consumption needs and tuition costs. This ensures that the institutions of higher education can increase their costs at an exponential well beyond the overall inflation rate (which are largely driven by out of control inefficiencies as opposed to expansion of capital to serve student needs).

    5. Ignore the fact that this system is completely unsustainable and ultimately degrading to human dignity. There will be a revolt… I suspect a kind that will be silent, moving along to other possibilities.

  7. susan the other

    My comment just disappeared, so again: If I could redesign the education system I would extend high school for two more years in a post-senior program that covered the basic requirements of the first two years of college. An accredited system. All local. Which would help local economies with more revenue from hiring more teachers, and some spinoffs. At the end of this postschool program kids would be virtually precertified to go on for their bachelors which would only take two years and be cheaper for whoever paid. In any event, it’s not like the old days when you could leave high school, get an easy job and have enough left over for tuition. Those days are gone. Kids are living at home much longer now and will be for a long time. Because jobs. Both the affordability of living expenses for postschoolers (if living with mom and dad almost zero) and the administrative costs of the extended state-paid schools would be easier to manage on a local, familiar level. Etc.

    1. Antifa

      Many homeschooled youth get a big head start on their Bachelor’s degree by studying specifically to pass CLEP tests that award credits for most of the basic college courses at around $85 per test:

      There’s no absolute age limit. If you’ve got the knowledge to pass the test at 10 years old, you get the college credit. This approach does require studying out what credits the college you plan on attending will accept from CLEP testing. You can save most of two years off the usual campus-bound approach.

    2. Jim in SC

      Extending high school for two years is the opposite of what is needed. I agree with Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, that we need to lop off the last two years of high school. I think kids have got four good years of work in them between ages thirteen and twenty two. Let it be in college. If they’ve already done their four years of hard work in high school, then college is superfluous.

  8. heresy101

    Besides the suggestions that Samuels and other commenters make, there is one political task the AFT and other unions could accomplish: propose an amendment to the CA Constitution that would limit public employee total compensation for all local and State government employees to four (4) times the median income (currently $51,000) of the average Californian. The only way the top salary would increase would be if all voters income increased. A clause in the bill could preserve defined PERS benefits thus making the actual salary lower and closer to most voters. All organizations receiving non-profit tax status could be added to the proposition.

    The proposal would get rid of the Janet Napalitano’s and other worthless bureaucrats because the pay would be too low for them. Additionally, with a flatter wage structure, it would be more difficult to build bureaucratic empires.

    The required one million signatures could be almost all collected from college students who are rightly indignant about administrator salaries. A Proposition to this effect is almost guaranteed passage because the Republicans would vote for it because they hate the government and think government workers are paid too much. Democrats and Independents want to cut their education costs and taxes. The only likely opposition would be the 1% who would fear they may be next.

    1. Dirk77

      No more Propositions please. Prop. 13, Three Strikes, etc. I’m not the only one in California who now regrets all of them passing.

  9. jgordon

    As someone else said earlier, this is naive. Once a certain level of corruption and graft becomes endemic, the only workable solution is wholesale destruction of the system. Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, and the recent GMO-labeling state initiatives have demonstrated that.

    For people who are interested in actual reform then, the problem is not in trying to push the current crop of elite parasites out of their cushy jobs, but in preventing those parasites from obtaining jobs in the new system after the collapse unfolds. Although truth be told, the population should be very much reduced after said collapse unfolds, with attrition among the elites being especially brutal (and very poor people hardly noticing a difference in their circumstances at all). So all this should work itself out on its own.

  10. Alonzo

    The only education a person needs is that which enables them to distinguish whether they are being persuaded or whether they are persuading themselves based on evidence. These days, everything else is just an argument about who gets the vocational education necessary to land a job in one or the other monopoly.

  11. bmeisen

    Thanks Yves. “Student Services” are driving the hiring boom in administration according to recent Chronicle of Higher Ed reports, and student services, apart from the service of educating, are central features to the product that Americans think they are buying in the HE market. Education is not the defining purpose of American HE – both students and parents select, from among the many services available, those which do more than educate: services that entertain, enhance social status, protect, preserve and extend existing perceptions, feed. In many cases classic educational services do not enter the calculation. When the culture changes its perception of HE then there might be change. Most Americans however seem to still believe that it is an exclusively personal investment choice while the notion that it is a public good, that society needs educated adults and should pay for their education, has gotten lost under the table.

  12. washunate

    Yves, you comment that the healthcare system is different from the higher ed system. I’d posit hospitals and universities are about as similar as they come in terms of isolating out of control costs – mission creep designed to justify otherwise unnecessary administration.

Comments are closed.