Experts: Why the New York Times op-ed on rising tuition got it wrong

Experts call the piece 'a failure and a mess'

A slew of experts have criticized a high-profile op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, which blamed the rising cost of college tuition on "the constant expansion of university administration."

In his op/ed, Paul Campos, a University of Colorado-Boulder law professor, dismisses the common notion that falling state funding to public university systems has driven tuition increases. Instead, Campos points to "the constant expansion of university administration" and the "recent trend toward seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators."

But since publication, multiple higher education experts have picked apart Campos' argument.

For example, Campos argues that total state funding peaked in 2009. But Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, points out that in the past three decades, state appropriations per student have fallen 18% and are 29% lower than their peak in the 1988-1989 school year.

Campos also draws on a hypothetical scenario that attracted criticism. "Suppose that since 1990 the government had doubled the number of military bases," Campos writes, "while spending slightly less per base. A claim that funding for military bases was down, even though in fact such funding had nearly doubled, would properly be met with derision."

However, experts criticized the military base analogy for being quite different than what happened to colleges. For instance, the number of public colleges in the United States has remained nearly constant since 1990, writes Matt Reed, VP for academic affairs at Holyoke Community College, in an open letter to the New York Times published in Inside Higher Ed. "But they're serving far more students, and doing so with much less help per student," he adds, calling Campos' op-ed "a failure and a mess."

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Reed also condemns Campos' choice to refer interchangeably to "colleges and universities," "public higher education," and "public universities." Reed argues that one of these terms, public higher education, includes community colleges, which are not mentioned in Campos' piece.

And community colleges are exempt from many of Campos' criticisms, says Reed. They do not cost nearly as much as four-year institutions and their employees do not earn seven-figures, "unless you count cents."

Other writers were more supportive of Campos. Writing for Forbes, Richard Vedder agrees with Campos' dismantling of the argument that state appropriation changes are driving tuition changes. Vedder also adds to Campos' argument that private colleges have raised their tuition—even though they do not get state funding and therefore should be less affected by its fluctuations (Thomason, "The Ticker," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/6; Reed, "Blog U," Inside Higher Ed, 4/5; Vedder, "Center for College Affordability and Productivity," Forbes, 4/7; Campos, New York Times, 4/3).

The takeaway: An op-ed in the New York Times blaming tuition increases on excessive administrative positions and salaries drew criticism from higher education experts.

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