Monday, April 29, 2013

Under-acknowledged Dimensions of College Affordability

Conversation surrounding college affordability is inescapable in education policy circles these days. Pundits point to steadily decreasing institutional subsidies to students and attendant tuition hikes. It is true that, after adjusting for inflation, tuition at four-year public institutions increased by 75 percent between 1991 and 2004. For some, state governments are partly to blame for rising tuition, as many have cut appropriations to higher education. Nevertheless, there is a key dimension to this conversation on college affordability that is consistently overlooked—the student-consumer. It’s not just institutions or states that need to rethink their approach to higher education. Students and the cultural norms driving social spending in college likewise need to be re-envisioned.

As an important backdrop, financial aid began a marketization process in 1972 when the Higher Education Act of 1965 was amended so that financial aid was given directly to students, instead of institutions. This policy shift was justified through discourse of student choice, making it one of the first pieces of federal higher education legislation to explicitly use market-based rhetoric. Pell grants effectively became vouchers, and students became state-subsidized consumers in higher education quasi-markets. This shift meant that higher education institutions were more explicitly competing for students. Competition was accompanied and fueled by the rise of corporate management techniques and ranking systems starting in the 1980s.

Institutions compete through the reputation of their academic programs, but also through amenities like gymnasiums, student unions, and residence halls. Because the competition is often motivated by a desire to improve in rankings, amenities become part of a positional arms race, with no definitive end game. All of these amenities carry cost, some of which have bearing on tuition (see this report by the Delta Cost Project for additional data and analysis on this topic). A handful of these amenities are paid for by student recreation or programming fees. Although these fees may not contribute to rising tuition, they certainly factor into wider affordability concerns, as indicated in a recent story from New Mexico University. Sharing the responsibilities of rethinking higher education, then, should be students, who must confront how their own demand for certain amenities is ratcheting up what they must pay to attend college. 

Student Union at the University of Akron
This re-thinking shouldn’t be limited to bricks and mortar on campuses. In considering college spending and affordability, few people account for all of the social spending that has been normalized in the college experience. Anyone who works in higher education is well aware of how much students and their families pay for a variety of things to increase comfort and make adjustment and acceptance easier. This spending includes the almost outrageous amount of stuff bought prior to move-in day to decorate or outfit dorm rooms: mini-fridges, bed lofts, carpet squares, televisions, storage units, and more. Several companies have capitalized on this spending by making lists so that students have everything they “need” to start college. I would argue that a good portion of the spending on outfitting dorm rooms is designed to signal that one has the requisite class standing to make it or belong in college. Ironically, some recent research suggests that students whose parents pay the entirety of their educational expenses don’t perform well because they engage in more leisure activities.

Dorm room designs courtesy of Wal-Mart
The sad reality is that much of this stuff purchased to outfit dorm rooms is perceived as disposable. At the end of the year, dumpsters around college dormitories are stocked with a variety of gently worn futons and the like, which students either can’t move or figure they will repurchase for next year. Several organizations have started to dumpster dive to recover these items and donate them to charity. At my own alma matter, volunteers would sit next to dumpsters on move-out day and inspect any “trash” students were throwing out for items that could be repurposed.

Dorm room items are just a small piece of social spending in college. Other spending includes:
  • clothes that bear the college or university’s name, which can be purchased from the bookstore at phenomenally high prices;
  • food and beverages, including coffee and alcohol, especially at concentrated campus-based consumption areas
  • Travel for spring break, away weekends, or study abroad. 
Purchases on these items were patently evident to me a few years ago, when I collected data as part of an ethnography of how students use the campus library. During participant observation, the brand-name accoutrement of studying was ubiquitous: Apple products, Starbucks coffee cups, and Under Armour apparel. (Full disclosure: I also drink an embarrassingly large amount of Starbucks coffee.) These are not cheap items, and I know several students who have sought employment on campus to support their spending habits, not contribute to tuition payments. I have also spoken with students who have acquired large credit card debt as they went through their college years, precisely due to social spending. Of course, it should be kept in mind that there are students for whom these comments do not apply—students who work several jobs to pay for school or make different lifestyle choices. Still, I think this is an important line of research that should be pursued to provide a more complete picture of costs associated with higher education.

Even amidst efforts aimed at sustainability, many campuses have actively encouraged social spending, turning their unions into mini-malls and allowing companies to test products on campus. Some scholars have suggested that college has become a training site for consumer capitalism, where students internalize a never ending cycle of studying, credentialing, and working to afford more and more stuff. Again, social spending may have negligible effects on tuition, but it has major implications for affordability. The cultural expectations of the college experience can have a strikingly high price.

As we search for ways to reform higher education so that it is more effective and efficient, the conversation should not exclude the habitus of student-consumers. We need to address the wastage and values being cultivated among these actors just as much as institutions and state governments.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


Adjunctivitis |n.| {aj-ungkt-iv-i-tis} – The ever increasing reliance upon contingent instructional labor in higher education as a result of the perception that they improve efficiency and flexibility.

Researchers, advocacy organizations, higher education administrators, and a range of other stakeholders have observed—often with alarm—the changing composition of the instructional labor force in U.S. higher education over the past three decades. The nature of this change is reflected in two interrelated trends: 1) the increasing number of part-time and full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty and 2) the decreasing number of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

According to Umbach (2007), between 1975 and 1995, the number of part-time faculty increased by 103 percent, and the number of full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty by 93 percent. By 2003, part-time faculty accounted for 46.3 percent of appointments at degree-granting postsecondary institutions nationwide (American Association of University Professors, 2006). Curtis and Jacobe (2006) found that between 1975 and 2003, full-time tenured faculty as a percentage of all faculty fell from 36.5 to 24.1 percent. With these statistics in mind, an advocacy organization representing part-time and full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty formed, calling itself the New Faculty Majority. Critiquing the position of part-time faculty as nameless instructional laborers, Street, Maisto, Meves, and Rhoades (2012) poignantly asked: “Who is professor ‘staff’ and how can this person teach so many classes?”

Many scholars link the rising number of part-time faculty to a broader labor force pattern—beginning in the 1970s—of employing contingent workers. Labor economists define contingent work as “any job in which an individual does not have an explicit or implicit contract for long-term employment or in which the minimum hours worked can vary in a nonsystematic manner” (Povlika & Nardone, 1989, p. 11). In the private sector, contingent workers are employed to reduce labor expenses and increase flexibility in managing the costs associated with hiring, training, and terminating employees (Monks, 2007). When applied to the context of higher education, flexibility allows higher education administrators to respond quickly to budget shortfalls, unpredicted enrollment changes, and/or student-consumer demand because no long-term commitments of resources are made.

By linking the increasing utilization of part-time faculty to broader patterns in contingent work, many higher education researchers proffer a chiefly economic and organizational explanations for this phenomenon. For these researchers, hiring part-time faculty is a rational management technique for reducing costs and promoting flexibility in the face of steadily declining state appropriations to higher education. As follows, they take the expanding presence and cost-reducing benefit of part-time faculty as a given, focusing their attention on attendant student outcomes. Yet one cannot study the rising number of part-time faculty without considering simultaneous political and cultural critiques of the institution of tenure. And there is reason to question the efficiency of employing large numbers of part-time faculty.

Calls to reform and, in some circles, eliminate tenure proliferated in the 1970s and 1990s (Rhoades, 1996). According to Chait (2002), there are five reasons the debate surfaced with renewed fervor in the late 1990s and continues in the present. First, there were public concerns related to guaranteed, lifetime employment of faculty, with some viewing it as outdated and others labeling it a preposterous protection of arrogant elites or unproductive deadwood. Second, there were managerial and fiduciary concerns, as higher education administrators bemoaned how tenure blocked centralized planning and inhibited strategic reallocation of resources. Third, some faculty themselves issued complaints over the tenure process, especially women faculty and faculty of color. Fourth, as previously noted, tenure was increasingly seen as just one of several types of faculty appointment types. Part-time and full-time, tenure-ineligible faculty were progressively hired to teach introductory courses and staff courses in the growing number of professional schools. Fifth, at public institutions legislators tended to intervene when complaints were registered and questions were raised over wasted or inefficiently spent money. This intervention often materialized as an answer to perceived discontent with educators and tenure.

At face value, it is logical to assert that part-time faculty are less costly than full-time or full-time, tenure-track faculty. Beyond earning less, many part-time faculty are not eligible for benefits, professional development, or instructional support (Coalition on the Academic Workforce [CAW], 2012; Gappa & Leslie, 1993). Nevertheless, earnings may not be an appropriate measure of costs associated with academic staffing decisions. Hidden costs of using part-time faculty, such as bureaucratic burdens on department chairs, administrative time spent on paperwork, inefficiencies related to high turnover, and questionable returns on investment, suggest that “direct dollar savings per course are not as dramatic as they appear when the only variable examined is the actual salary paid” (p. 102).

I used panel data from 1988 to 2010 to explore the relationship between the number of part-time faculty at public research institutions and 1) education general costs and 2) instructional costs. I took data from the Delta Cost Project and included additional variables that have bearing on cost in higher education (e.g., enrollments, degrees awarded, state appropriations, research expenditures). I ran a panel-corrected fixed-effects regression, with interesting results. Based on my analysis, the number of part-time faculty is positively related to both education and general costs and instructional costs. A one percent increase in the number of part-time faculty is associated with a 0.016 percent increase in education and general costs and a 0.03 percent increase in instructional costs. In other words, hiring part-time faculty doesn’t appear to reduce costs at public research institutions.

The increasing utilization of part-time faculty may not be a rational management technique to promote efficiency and flexibility in response to reduced state appropriations. Instead, heads of academic units may be making personnel decisions based on the perception of cost-savings. The fact that many part-time faculty are hired quickly after the release of state budget information indicates that the decision may be more of a crisis-induced reaction to a shortfall of instructors than a planned personnel strategy.

At the same time, it is worth further exploring the possibility that hiring part-time faculty carries symbolic value and helps institutions score political points. In an era when higher education is harshly criticized by various stakeholders for ballooning costs and tuition increases that outpace the rate of inflation, campus leaders are maneuvering to convey that they are managing resources effectively and better serving consumers. Accordingly, the employment of part-time faculty may not originate from a desire to expand contingent labor in higher education, but rather from a fear of protecting or perpetuating the institution of tenure, which has been critiqued for wastage since the 1970s. These ideas remain speculative until further research is conducted that, like this study, questions the cost-savings associated with hiring part-time faculty and investigates other explanations for this trend.

For me, a major take away of this mini research project is that some of the assumptions on which research is based are exactly that: assumptions. They lack empirical substantiation. Because they are cited ad nauseum in literature, they take on the veneer of truth. What appears to be common sense may have the political backing to make it so. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

Incubate Your Dreams, Invent Your Future

Today, my university played host to what has become one of the largest non-athletic events on campus: the Cupid’s Cup business model competition. The event is funded, in part, by alumnus Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour. The name of the event reflects Plank’s first business venture, which involved buying roses wholesale and selling them cheaply to students around Valentine’s Day, undercutting nearby retailers. This is not the only business model competition on campus. In fact, many of the competitors seemed to have circulated all of the various opportunities on campus for securing seed funding and other resources.

Nevertheless, Cupid’s Cup is one of the largest and has garnered national attention, largely due to its presence in the corporate spotlight. The day started with a business and innovation showcase, where local and university-based start-ups can present their products and services to potential investors at conference-like booths. Attendees voted on their favorite booths, and the winners were presented with cash prizes of $2,000 each. The main event, however, was a competition in which six teams of student entrepreneurs from around the country pitched their ideas to a panel of judges. The teams essentially have a few minutes to tell their entrepreneurial story, complete with props and multimedia, in the hopes of winning $50,000 and access to Plank’s expertise and network.

As an interested onlooker and researcher, this was an illuminating experience for a number of a reasons. First, there was clear evidence supporting the idea that entrepreneurship permeates my university’s institutional culture. In one short afternoon, I observed the culture’s heroes (e.g., Plank, the epitome of the enterprising student turned entrepreneur), codes (e.g., “the special sauce,” referring to intellectual property, or what makes a product or service unique), and symbols (e.g., the marker board, signifying the constant need for daring ideas and curiosity). When the Dean of the business school spoke, he proclaimed that “we live and breathe entrepreneurship every day in the halls of Van Munching [Hall].” Dr. Wallace Loh, President of the University of Maryland, made it clear he wants this to be a university-wide occurrence, declaring his ambitious goal that all 37,000 students to be exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship education.

Second, I was immediately struck by the resources required to produce an event of this magnitude.  Of course, much of the money was put up by donors, which included AOL and BB&T Bank. Still, the event was largely planned and implemented by university staff in the business school, particularly its two entrepreneurship-related centers. There are scholars who link the rise of entrepreneurship in colleges and universities to the search for new money in the face of declining state and local appropriations. Although at least one of teams competing was marketing a product whose intellectual property belonged to the university, I could not help but wonder if more is being spent promoting and teaching entrepreneurship than is being brought in through licensing royalties. If this is the case, we need research that looks at the true costs and benefits of these initiatives. And we cannot think of the entrepreneurial turn in higher education as purely a rational response to economic conditions. It must serve other purposes.

Third, I noticed an interesting paradox that has been discussed by a few others. Entrepreneurship, in part, is about taking risks to disrupt the status quo. For this reason, the university has developed an entire marketing campaign around the slogan “Fearless Ideas.” But what Cupid’s Cup and similar initiatives try to do is minimize the risk to students by providing coaching, access to experts, and seed funding. The university has created a set of resources that collectively create a business incubator for students. Some of these resources come directly from state appropriations, hence the concept of the state-subsidized student entrepreneur developed by Matthew Mars. Interestingly, the competition included an award for the team that had best leveraged all of these resources in developing their product or service. Plank encouraged “all those out there who want to start a venture but don’t know where to begin” to make use of campus resources to incubate into reality “the fearless ideas that keep you up at night.” What I find intriguing, however, is the possibility that all of this coaching and all of these resources actually constrain innovation. There are norms and parameters set, shaping the types of ideas that students pursue in order to gain access to seed money. It could be the most disruptive, novel ideas are those that are never given the chance to compete or win any money because they do not conform to institutional expectations of social/economic value creation.

The final learning moment for me was the most profound. It aligned with a comment one of my advisors made during a talk I gave on entrepreneurship in education. He said that the rise of entrepreneurship is a symptom of system failure. We saw similar discourses about the need to be innovative and entrepreneurial in the 1980s, when, much like today, our country grappled with slow economic growth, questions about global competitiveness, and high unemployment. In other words, we turn to entrepreneurship when there are few good jobs, and the powers that be want people to reignite the rugged individualist spirit and channel ingenuity in order to pave their personal path to prosperity. At Cupid’s Cup, President Loh told the audience that there is a lack of formal, full-time jobs for this generation of students. Graduates in the 21st century need to invent their own jobs, and the nation needs them to innovate in order to out-compete India and China. After all, in order “to win the future” students must contend not just with competition from “Baltimore and Boston, but also Bangalore and Beijing.”

So, it’s not really just about fearless ideas and making dreams come true. We have to think about the particular historical moment that has given rise to investment in student entrepreneurialism—how the social context has shaped the field. The sociology of knowledge teaches that a field emerges not merely from ideas themselves, but also the settings in which researchers and practitioners work. How is it that entrepreneurship has developed into a subject of study, something that is “recognized as worth knowing, teaching, credentialing, advancing through research, and the like”? (Gumport, 2007, p. 349). When we step back to do this type of analysis, we recognize the multifaceted dimensions of the push for entrepreneurial studies—equal parts political, economic, and cultural. Entrepreneurship comes to embody the concept of functionalization. That is, when one discourse comes to serve the strategic and utilitarian ends of another: national economic competitiveness. 


Gumport, P. (Ed.). (2007). Sociology of higher education: Contributions and their contexts. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.