As I watched Beyoncé dance up a storm on Super Bowl Sunday this year, I found myself surrounded by a large group of liberal arts professors. Jokingly, I inquired about their friend “Sallie Mae,” and many of them gave me a blank stare in return. One of the professors finally chimed in and said, “oh you mean student loans… yeah, we’re hoping the bubble doesn’t blow up in the next ten years, so we can keep cashing our salary checks.”
Our casual conversation at a random Super Bowl party revealed what many people in higher education already know. Professors around the country know that they’re one student loan crisis away from losing their jobs, and getting another job as a full time professor is extremely hard, if not outright impossible. Despite the student loan bubble and the bonanza of money that’s been emptying into university coffers, you’ll find the people who do the actual teaching in classrooms at the very bottom of the academia salary pyramid.
It’s sobering but true: our system of higher education is dangerously addicted to debt. As students finance their tuition with government-backed student loans, academic institutions have seen little incentive to slow down increasing their prices. The perpetual flow of federally sponsored financing means that universities have enjoyed a renaissance of revenue in recent times. Where exactly all that cash is going is the subject of much curiosity.
Colleges and universities aren’t exactly the paragon of transparency when it comes to their finances. While governments around the world are increasingly posting their budgets online for all to see, academic budgets are often shrouded in secrecy.
We do know the ivory tower loves a good construction project. It’s pretty well documented that many colleges and universities across America have taken their tuition windfalls and used it to expand facilities. It’s been an industry-wide rat race to stay competitive and relevant with the most cutting-edge technology and amenities needed to lure students. But even the most ambitious plans cannot account for all of the cash that has poured into academic institutions nationwide.
What’s patently obvious is that academia has been investing as little as possible in hiring tenure-track professors. Despite the steep hikes in tuition, the number of students being taught by actual full-time professors is at an all time low. Instead, they’ve become more reliant on adjunct professors, who get paid a little more than a service industry worker like a barista.
This is the darker side of academia: the young ladies and gents who are actually on the ground instructing this batch of college students live pretty depressing lives. You would think that academia, a bastion of bleeding heart liberalism would treat their employees well, but in reality, in some ways they’re worse than the big box stores that get so much flack for their labor practices. The people in administrative positions at institutions of higher learning make great salaries in comparison, while graduate students and adjuncts have to live on wages that make it nearly impossible to survive.
What’s sad is that there are already signs that the student loan bubble is starting to deflate, which means that life for professors is probably going to get tougher. There are far too many people getting PhDs right now, and academic budgets won’t be as generous in the future as they were in the past decade. People are becoming more cost-conscious when they apply to college, and that’s starting to put downward pressure on tuition. Over the past year, college tuition has been rising at the slowest rate since the 1970’s, and applications have been declining at some expensive private universities.
Many colleges and universities have clearly lost sight of what’s important. It’s already ethically questionable to cause your student body to go deep into debt, never mind using that windfall to hire a bunch of administrators that probably don’t meaningfully contribute to student learning. Your alma mater hitting you up for charitable contributions after graduation when you haven’t even put a dent in your debt only adds insult to injury.
People often talk about the need for corporate America to be more ethical, but a brief look at academia shows that the whole sector is out of touch with their core mission. Millennials need to push back against this broken system, and demand more transparency from their alma maters. As the golden era of student loan financed campus expansions comes to an end, academia will have to take a cold hard look at what’s really important. You don’t need a shiny new gym and dozens of deans. Instead, you need to focus on professors who actually educate the future leaders of this nation.