How Should We Combat Administrative Bloat in Colleges?


By George Leef

One of the major reasons for the rising cost of a college education is administrative bloat. Schools have been adding administrative personnel at a rate much faster than enrollment growth for decades. What, if anything, can be done to stop increasing costs?

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece published on June 3, Columbia University law professor Philip Hamburger writes about the problem: “Financed in large part with federally subsidized tuition, this rise of administrators siphons money from the core functions of academic institutions. Colleges and universities have shifted teaching duties from full-time professors to part-time nontenured adjuncts who earn paltry; wages. “

Hamburger wants to use the power of federal regulations to, as his title says, “stop feeding administrative bloat.” To do that, he advocates using the leverage of federal student aid. He would have Congress change the law so that federal college loans would be given to students on a sliding scale that would depend on the college’s ratio of administrators to full-time tenured faculty.

If a student wants to attend a school with a low ratio, he would qualify for a larger loan at a lower interest rate. On the other hand, if a student wants to attend a school with a high ratio, he’d qualify for a smaller loan at a higher interest rate. Since many students take out federal loans and are sensitive to the costs, Hamburger’s proposal would tend to steer them away from colleges with high administrative ratios, thereby pressuring them to cut down on the number of administrators they employ.

He acknowledges that his change would be complicated. “Different programs,” he writes, “have different administrative needs, and thus the scale for medical students might have to be different from that for undergraduates. And it may make sense to exclude from the scale those administrators who care for academic assets such as libraries and databases. Moreover, because schools may respond by replacing administrators with contract workers, the scale would have to include them, too.”

In a nutshell, Hamburger wants to fight the bad effects of an expansion of government authority (after all, the federal student loan programs have not always existed – they were among the many new ideas implemented during the “Great Society” of President Lyndon Johnson) with a further expansion of government authority.

Fighting fire with fire sometimes works, but in this instance, I don’t think it’s the right approach.

For one thing, there may be unexpected adverse consequences from Hamburger’s idea. It is possible, for example, that causing students to steer away from colleges with high administrative ratios will also mean that some of them will choose schools that aren’t the best for them academically but will cost less to finance. Just as racial preferences cause student mismatch, so could this policy of favoring colleges with low administrative ratios.

More importantly, though, I think Professor Hamburger’s idea is mistaken because it fails to get at the root of the problem, which is federal student aid itself.

Student aid programs (grants and loans) have caused a huge influx of unprepared, disengaged students who shouldn’t be pursuing college degrees, but instead some kind of occupational training. That has had a host of bad consequences, the explosion of administrators among them. The only real solution is to stop federal financial aid.

The best reason for doing so is that there is no warrant under the Constitution for the federal government to finance education of any kind. Read through the powers given to the legislative branch and the executive branch in Articles I and II and you will find nothing that authorizes the federal grant and loan programs. One would think that Professor Hamburger would focus on that since he has made a serious attack on the constitutionality of administrative law in general in his 2014 book Is Administrative Law Unlawful?

Moreover, even if we adopted his suggestion for attacking administrative bloat by tinkering with student aid and it worked, we would still suffer all the other bad effects of federal student aid. What we need to get Americans thinking about are the reasons for ending those aid programs entirely, not just tinkering with them to perhaps achieve some small objective.


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