America’s Elitist Conception Of College Quality

On Earth Prime, the “best” colleges are approximately the ones whose freshman classes have the highest average SAT scores. On Earth 2, admissions are randomized and the “best” colleges are approximately the ones where the median college student learns the most. One would expect the spending priorities of colleges on Earth Prime and Earth 2 to be quite different.

I think that’s the right context in which to read Benjamin Ginsburg’s eye-opening article on bloated administrative spending in America’s higher education sector. If it were the case that the way for a college to become a “better” college was for its students to learn more, I think the odds are high that we wouldn’t have seen these kind of spending patterns. What’s even better, if we had seen these spending patterns, I’d be reasonably confident that there was some good reason for the number of staff positions to increase much more rapidly than the number of teaching positions. To me, that’s the fundamental problem here. Absent some kind of shared understanding — shared between donors, parents, professors, administrators, reporters, legislators, regulators, etc. — that a “good” college is one at which roughly average undergraduates learn more than they do at the average college, it’s hard to get anything else right. It’s difficult to tell what constitutes money well spent, and it’s difficult to tell what’s money well saved. It’s difficult to tell what’s an overpriced school, and it’s difficult to distinguish between a cost-effective no-frills bargain and a bargain-basement scam.

Ginsburg’s piece is great, and certainly seems to offer a fair chunk of the answer to the question “where has all this higher ed money gone” but the solution has to involve shifting the overall mentality about what it is a college ought to aspire to do.