American higher education is getting dangerously fat. Unfortunately, the federal government's idea of a diet is to feed colleges more and cut back on their exercise.
The signs of bloat are clear. According to a recent report from the College Board, between 2004 and 2005 — what seems like the hundredth straight year — the average price of tuition grew faster than inflation. Consider some of the recent binges the money went to pay for: American University president Benjamin Ladner, whose $633,000 salary and substantial university-owned house apparently weren't enough to satisfy him, used school funds to pay for a personal chef he occasionally sent for training in Europe, an engagement fete for his son that ran hundreds of dollars per person, and a garden-club party that cost over $5,000. His punishment? A $3.75 million payoff to leave the school.
Even more alarming are reports of extravagances being built throughout the ivory tower. A 2003 New York Times article, for instance, detailed the proliferation of mammoth Jacuzzis, climbing walls, and other indulgences. This September, Sports Illustrated.com profiled the University of Missouri's new $50-million recreation complex that features "the indoor Tiger grotto" that "takes on a South Beach vibe: Students chill in the hot tub or splash in a lazy river surrounded by palm trees and a rocky waterfall while waiters serve poolside wraps, smoothies and protein shakes."
These things, of course, just show how plump academia is now. The most ominous signs for higher education's future health are federal plans to fix academia.
Congress, for instance, is finalizing the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Many lawmakers have trumpeted the legislation's efforts to save a few bucks by cutting federal subsidies to lending companies, but it also expands student aid considerably. That's a recipe for disaster because student aid is higher education's favorite meal. The same College Board data that showed tuition growth outpacing inflation also revealed that federal student aid, adjusted for inflation, more than doubled over the last ten years, increasing from $44.5 billion to a whopping $90.1 billion. Moreover, while the inflation-adjusted cost of tuition, fees, and room and board increased 42 percent at four-year public colleges and 32 percent at four-year private schools, at almost the same time aid per full-time-equivalent student increased 62 percent.
No wonder students and colleges keep getting fatter. More and more of what they're consuming is being furnished by taxpayers. And Bush administration officials want to see that higher-education revenue keep on growing. In September, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the formation of a commission tasked with designing a "national strategy for higher education" to prepare us for the 21st century.
The commission is composed entirely of people in academia, government or big business, all of whom benefit when taxpayer money is shoveled into higher education. Its recommendations are therefore almost a foregone conclusion: The federal government should spend more on student aid supposedly to ensure, as Spellings demands, that we have a workforce for the 21st century, and on "basic" research that businesses want done but on which they would rather not risk their own money.
Of course, with a unified national strategy two more things will come: federal control of academia and an end to the competition for students that has driven innovation in American higher education and made it the envy of the world. It's the worst thing we could do according to a recent analysis by The Economist, which concluded that for a higher education system to succeed, it must "first: diversify [its] sources of income" and "second: let a thousand academic flowers bloom. Universities… should have to compete for customers."
Unfortunately, we are heading in the opposite direction. Think No Child Left Behind for the Ivy League. "Many people don't realize that federal dollars… make up about one-third of our nation's total annual investment in higher education," Secretary Spellings declared as she announced the formation of her commission. "By comparison, the federal government's investment in K-12 education represents less than 10 percent of total spending. But unlike K-12 education, we don't really ask many questions about what we're getting for our investment in higher education."
The federal government continues to serve colleges and universities the free money that has made them dangerously fat, and is now planning to keep them from doing the one thing that has helped them stay at least marginally fit: competing with one another. American higher education, it appears, is heading for a coronary.