The Stiff Price of Social Justice

Adam Mission

Adam Mission is the pseudonym of someone who works in the admissions office of a well-known public research university.

“As you might expect, her father and I are concerned with the financials,” she said, “We’ve been diligent about saving through a 529 plan. Despite this, our shortfall would still be in the $70,000 range.”

The applicant’s parents sat across from my desk in the admission department. They seemed sheepish that they didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in their account. I could tell from the moment they walked into my office that this was their first child going to college.

“Frankly, we’re old school,” the mother continued, “Besides our mortgage, we’ve never had any debt, lived within our means and saved for the future. We hope for our child to graduate with as little debt as possible.”

She paused, and finally straightened as if to brace for what she was going to say next.

“We’re both from humble, hardworking Midwest households and we’ve earned every penny we have. We’re even prepared to move here if it means getting our daughter in-state tuition.”

Her story wasn’t unusual. In fact, the high cost of college tuition is one of the most common things I deal with as an admissions counselor for a well-known public research university. College tuition is outrageously high; and it’s only getting higher every year. When my father went to college, tuition at my current institution was around $300 a year. Even accounting for inflation, the average American family a generation ago could afford going to college without breaking the bank. Now tuition at my university is 30 times as expensive. Students and their families pay for college by taking on second mortgages, working four jobs, or moving to another state. Most often they take on crippling debt that will haunt them the rest of their life.

There are a lot of theories about why the cost of tuition is so high and just as many about how to get those costs under control. Politicians, unsurprisingly, promise increased federal funding to make it “free.” Academics criticize the increased expenditure on massive collegiate athletic programs. All sorts of people disapprove of uncontrolled spending on expansive building projects and the all-inclusive resort amenities that students now seem to expect at college. What really costs money, though, is salaries. As with most businesses, the highest expenditure of a university is payroll—and that cost has been skyrocketing. The reason is the growth in administrative jobs. In the past 25 years, the number of non-academic administrative employees has doubled nationwide, growing at more than double the rate of increase in the number of students.

The vast sum of money being spent on administration isn’t just bloat. It’s a direct result of policies at the American public universities that aim to foster more diverse campuses through the strategic recruitment of underrepresented, low-income minorities. This is done by lowering admissions standards, regardless of demonstrated academic success. The predictable consequence is that most of these special-admits struggle in their classes, and many drop out of college outright. Universities compensate by instituting expensive administrative programs to keep these students from dropping out.

I recently attended a strategic planning meeting where we listened to a scheme on how to increase student retention of low-income and minority students. I was struck by two things: the circular reasoning of the plan and the sheer cost of manpower required to institute it. It went something like this:

Within admissions, we intentionally recruit and lower the academic standards for low-income, minority, and LGBTQ+ applicants and admit them over higher-achieving students. Once enrolled at the university, it will be almost impossible for nearly illiterate students to keep pace with the rigors of college classes. We then hire an army of academic advisers, student-retention specialists, and course tutors to bolster performance, while tasking newly hired Title IX administrators to pressure faculty to soften academic grading standards. The additional administrative payroll will cost the university millions of dollars, the cost of which must come from somewhere. To absorb the deficit, we will raise tuition. This will be paid out of pocket by higher-income students, by federal funding from increased taxes, and from burgeoning student loans.

The worst part of the plan is that it’s what we’re doing now, along with every other college in the country.

The real tragedy is that this scheme actually makes thing worse for poor students. The cost of all these administrators has sent tuition costs sky-high, and that discourages low-income students from even considering college. I have spoken face to face with brilliant low-income students with 4.0 GPAs who decide that “college isn’t for me” because of its prohibitive cost. Special-admit students who do go to college end up wasting their money and time, because they just aren’t prepared for academic success. The only thing the plan works at is making social justice warriors feel good about themselves for “making a difference.”

We can’t get everyone to go to college: some students just aren’t prepared. In fact, it’s downright unethical to get students to take on crippling student loans to pay for their education when almost half of them are going to drop out after the first year. The best thing we can do is to make college affordable for every academically qualified student—and the best way to do that would be to fire all the superfluous administrators who spend their days trying to retain students who shouldn’t be in college in the first place. We also should fire admissions staffers like me. We get paid to make college as expensive, unfair, and cruel as possible, by putting the thumb on the scale in favor of students of color, gender diversity, and low income—and not in favor of students who will actually do well in college, whatever they look like and whatever their parents earn.

It would be nice if we would decide on our own to change what we’re doing, but I’ve found that questioning the effectiveness of this approach is tantamount to blasphemy in the world of academic administration. Just a few months ago, the late Justice Scalia found himself under fire for questioning the benefit of using racial criteria alone in admitting underperforming students to rigorous academic programs. He’d have been burnt alive if he’d ventured that opinion at my office water cooler.

So keep saving for your kid’s 529 and best of luck on the application.

Image Credit: 401kcalculator.org, cropped.

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