Bailed-Out Colleges Should Be Forced to Cut Administrative Bloat

Christopher Kendall

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted by RealClearEducation and is posted here with permission.

As colleges and universities reckon with the damages brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, many smaller liberal arts colleges face salary cuts, layoffs, or closure. In response, Congress established the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund to distribute $14 billion in aid for colleges and universities.

Elite universities received millions of dollars in federal aid, despite boasting tens of billions of dollars in endowment funds. After public pressure, many of these schools backed down and returned or refused to accept the federal aid. Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania were among those that raced to get these federal grants, only to return them after a public outcry.

Despite receiving the initial $14 billion bailout to higher education, many college and university administrators are clamoring for more. The situation is dire. Public colleges face looming cuts to state appropriations, while private colleges foresee dramatic drops in tuition revenue in the fall.

Classrooms and dormitories lie empty, and many students seem inclined not to return. Colleges and universities are employing numerous measures to cut costs, including limiting purchases, freezing salaries, furloughing employees, and even laying off untenured faculty members. Despite this, most higher education leaders expect that these measures will not suffice. Many college administrators are relying on more federal bailouts to remain afloat.

A bailout of higher education is likely to occur in the coming months. Some measures have already been introduced in Congress to this effect. But how will colleges and universities use these funds? If they use them as they have done for decades, it will mean salary bumps for top administrators or flashy attractions to lure new students to enroll. It will mean millions spent on new administrative bureaucracy, further widening the disparity between the number of teaching staff versus Title IX administrators, assistant basketball coaches, and money managers.

Unfortunately, this has become the new norm. Fifty years ago, teaching staff far outnumbered administrators at colleges. But since 1987, administrative staff positions have ballooned by over half a million, outpacing growth in faculty positions by 200%.

Legislators and federal regulators must require that colleges and universities institute reforms to address long-standing problems in order to be eligible for bailout funds. They must ensure that public funding supports the critical missions of universities to educate students in pursuit of truth, to provide vocational training, to shape character, and to ready students for responsible citizenship, rather than support extraneous programs,

For decades, students have learned less while being charged more, as colleges devoured federal subsidies and raised tuition.

Our elected representatives have a duty to steward public money responsibly by directing it toward institutions that support U.S. security, encourage the health and welfare of American citizens, and honor our nation’s history. Colleges and universities do precious little of these.

So what can Congress do? What should federal legislators require of colleges and universities?

The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has released a blueprint for action, Critical Care, a series of policy recommendations to guide policymakers as they work to relieve American higher education in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown. Critical Care’s guidelines put students first, support students in need, refocus colleges and universities on rigorous classroom instruction, and prioritize intellectual freedom and intellectual diversity on campus.

One of the primary proposals is that Congress require any college and university that wishes to receive bailout funds to cut administrative overhead by 50 percent.

If this seems insurmountable, that only shows just how effective colleges have become at pushing the idea that their mission extends beyond education and into every realm of student life. Deans of Equity and Inclusion, “First Year Experience” Coordinators, and other personnel in the “co-curriculum” are recent inventions, and are irrelevant or harmful to students’ education. College students in the 1960s had a fraction of the administrative bureaucracy present on today’s campuses, yet their education included core courses, a grounding in the humanities, and conversance with American history. At the very least, they took a Western Civilization course. Few if any students today can say the same.

Some colleges have already begun this work. Bluefield State College in West Virginia, which has an enrollment of 1,100, has cut administrative overhead by 40% in the past year. NAS’s recommendations take smaller universities into account, easing requirements on those with fewer students than large private universities or state colleges. Yet if an institution as streamlined as Bluefield can find ways to cut administrative overhead and prioritize students, so too can others, especially those with considerably more resources.

Of the $14 billion allocated by Congress to higher education in the first CARE Act, more than $800 million went to the 25 universities that topped the list of largest endowments in the U.S. To ensure that public funding goes toward those universities with a true need, Congress should prevent the 100 wealthiest private colleges and universities from receiving any bailout funds. These universities have the resources necessary to ride out the storm.

In addition, no bailout funding should go to support the salaries of administrators or non-academic, non-teaching staff. And Congress should build on the work it has done to reform student lending practices, including halting interest on student loan repayments.

Deep reform in higher education will take considerable effort both on campus and in Congress. Structuring a bailout of higher education to require colleges to make substantial changes to address administrative bloat and the skyrocketing burden of tuition will make future change possible. Critical Care outlines how higher education can remake itself to be a worthy recipient of taxpayer funds.

Some members of Congress have begun this work already. Sen. Josh Hawley has introduced a bill prohibiting bailout funds from going to colleges with endowments over $10 billion unless they spend ten times what they receive in bailout funding on relief for students.

Measures such as these are steps in the right direction. But our education system needs far more to return to a place where it serves students, teachers, and the nation. Critical Care provides a much needed blueprint for this reform. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Princeton was one of many Ivy League universities that rushed to receive federal coronavirus aid. This was incorrect. Princeton was allocated money under the Department of Education's algorithm but ultimately decided not to accept or apply for the aid.

Christopher Kendall is Director of Development at the National Association of Scholars.

Image: Benh Lieu Song, Public Domain

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