The New York Times' Freakanomics blog notes several recent articles that finally deign to note the insanity of higher education pricing. While focusing on phenomena such as the overbuilding of palatial campus facilities, however, these accounts continue to pay short shrift to the factor most responsible for driving tuition inflation—the cost of tenure-track faculty.
Higher ed institutions across the land continue to staff themselves in accord with a research model, in which faculty are primarily evaluated upon their research records, are assigned courses largely on the basis of personal preference and departmental seniority, and are rewarded for performance by being given light teaching loads. All of this may make terrific sense at the 100 or 150 institutions like MIT, CalTech, the University of Michigan, or the University of Texas—places where the synergy of great researchers, talented graduate students, research facilities, and rich endowments or public subsidies are intended to produce new knowledge and scientific advances—but it's a ludicrous model for colleges and universities where these pieces are not in place and the faculty aren't up to snuff.
Thus state-supported regional public four-year colleges, which are supposedly focused on teaching, imagine that a Ph.D. and a couple of conference presentations or articles indicate a potential hire will be a competent instructor. (In fact, there is no serious research suggesting that individuals with Ph.D.'s are better college instructors than those without.) Their evaluation of instructor effectiveness begins and ends with student evaluations. They let their most senior (and most expensive) faculty teach senior seminars in esoterica to 10 or 12 students, while cramming adjuncts or junior hires into critical courses like freshman writing or introduction to biology. They "protect" time for faculty with unimpressive scholarly records to produce mediocre research for unread third-tier journals, creating a need for more faculty.
All of this shows up in the results. The students and faculty at the Amhersts, Dartmouths, and Oberlins are fine. These are luxury goods, and there are enough well-off families—in the United States and around the world—that these established institutions will have plenty of qualified takers. But only about 20 percent of four-year colleges are even marginally selective. Fully 80 percent of schools accept more than half of their applicants. It is at this 80 percent, not the elite 20 percent, where most Americans are educated, where students are less likely to be fine on their own, and where teaching rather than the research ought to be the central challenge. And it is at these institutions where most students don't graduate within six years (see the recent AEI report "Diplomas & Dropouts"); where most faculty should be hired and rewarded primarily based on teaching rather than research; and where a serious effort to focus and discipline the institutional mission could both serve students and dramatically cut costs.
The real challenge, now that we have finally decided to notice the problem with higher ed costs, is not to impose ham-handed federal policies but for educational leaders, public officials, and reformers to ask whether and when colleges and universities are spending cost-effectively and in a manner that is driven by the needs of students rather than institutional inertia.