The Cost of Tenure

There’s been a lot of blogging and punditry about tenure in higher education over the last few months, almost all of it on the question of whether or not tenure should be abolished. Most make some variation on the assertion that tenured and tenure-track professorships are to blame for the rising cost of higher education in the US, and therefore should be abolished for that reason as well as others such as the disincentive to work once one has guaranteed lifetime employment. As someone who hopes to make tenure at a university one day, I won’t comment on the question of moral hazard and other merits and demerits of tenure within the profession. But I do have something to say on the specific question of whether tenure bears some relationship to rising costs of higher education.

The accusation that tenure is increasing the cost of education bears no relation to reality. Those who honestly believe that tenure is raising costs need a refresher in the concept of causality. They will find that, far from being the result of professors’ salaries, rising costs can be attributed to the expansion of the very student services that universities use to differentiate themselves from their competition. This growth, from the faceless bureaucracy to front-facing services to collegiate sports franchises, is to blame for the rise in the cost of a university education – not a tenured professoriate whose ranks remain stable or are even shrinking in many fields.

University tuition is rising both in America and in the UK, but it is rising in America much faster. Two major factors separate the American and British university experiences and may be instructive to examine further. First, the British universities do not have liberal arts programs and the impetus is to take only the amount of coursework necessary to achieve competency in their concentrated field of study. Second, the British universities do not have the culture of pampered student life that is so prevalent in the United States.

On the first issue of a lack of a liberal arts curriculum, I don’t think that this is as big an issue as it may seem. True, British students are not required to take a gen-ed program, which means fewer overall courses, and hence fewer hours to find a qualified lecturer for. But where British faculty are saving time in the lecture hall, they are expected to be conducting research. Research funding grants are the bread-and-butter of British academia, and a prestigious funding council award carries a weight that no teaching award could ever do. Thus, a good researcher is more of a financial asset than a good lecturer, as the researcher may be bringing in outside money. For better or for worse, the lack of a liberal arts curriculum in Britain may actually help keep academic departments solvent, not because those departments have fewer tenured faculty, but because those tenured faculty are oriented outwards to bring in research awards in lieu of part of their teaching workload.

However, that is marginal compared to the second issue, relating to student life, and here there is no comparison between the British model and the enormously self-indulgent American model. In Britain, a university exists to do research (some of which will be commercialized) and to educate students. In America, a university exists to do research (some of which will also be commercialized), to educate students, and to cater to their every whim and need. It is not professors who are driving up the costs of college attendance. It is the student-consumer’s demand for ever-greater on campus amenities.

The most glaring example is in athletics. British universities encourage strong participation in intramural sporting. But nowhere in a British university will you find the equivalent of an American college football team and its 80 scholarships per year. The massive resources that collegiate sports take up in scholarships (80 x $40,000 = $3.2 million for a football team alone) and in infrastructure costs (endowments and donations being directed towards athletic facilities and programs instead of academic ones)  are breathtaking. But they alone do not account for the rise in tuition, given that they do admittedly offset part of their costs through ticket sales and merchandising.

In Britain, there is a curious ethos whereby British students expect their university library to have their coursebooks on hand so that the individual student is not required to purchase them at great cost; conversely, the British student has no expectation of the university providing housing, and given that most British universities are in cities, is prepared to find their own. In contrast, the American student is strangely willing to buy expensive coursebooks, but also expects university-provided housing, a student union, a careers office and high-speed wifi throughout campus, in addition to the university library.

This is not to say that British universities do not have student services or amenities. They do. But the British do not expect their universities to be cocoons in which they live 24/7. It is the American demand for a high-quality, high-maintenance residential college that is driving up the cost of education. As dormitories fill up, new ones must be built, and donors must decide whether to support academics, the sports team or the housing program. Existing dormitories must be upgraded with air conditioning and the latest in 10mbps broadband and 802.11n wireless connections – after all, there is torrenting to be done at 3 am. The careers office must be open five days a week to help the budding expert in Women’s and Religious Studies to find a job after graduation. The student union had better be large enough for fast food restaurants and a place for a band to play a gig. And what about the library? Believe it or not, JSTOR is not free, nor are the other online subscriptions that, despite having no physical size or shape, cost just as much as their paper counterparts.

This is not to blame universities for their spending. On the contrary – they are attempting to deliver what their customers demand, in order to stay competitive. But an atmosphere of casual self-indulgence, where college is a place for organic personal growth rather than a focused plan of personal development, has added to an ever-expanding wish list of what students simply must have if they will attend an institution. This blurring of study and entertainment has been fueled by a binge of easy credit from the US government and the private lending industry. Faced with increasingly demanding prospective clients with the means to pay for what they want, universities have done the sensible thing and expanded their student life offerings past what is sustainable, affordable or actually necessary in the pursuit of research and education.

The financial crisis brought the curtain down on excessive consumer and investment debt, and while an education debt crunch has not yet hit it probably will. Then the growth in cost of attendance will come to a sudden and predictable halt. The out of control expenditures that have seen a doubling in the total cost of attendance at American universities have everything to do with excessive demands for frivolous amenities at jacked-up prices, fueled by easy credit.

They have nothing to do with tenured professors.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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2 Responses to The Cost of Tenure

  1. Pingback: » Academic tenure in the Universities Act, 1997

  2. Pingback: The Problem of the 15K-BA | A View from Clinkman's Dome

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