Sometimes juxtapositions summarize problems so crisply that belief must be suspended. One of those moments surfaced last week when Bloomberg News focused on Purdue University in an article about the rapid rise of university administrative expenses.
The number of administrative workers at Purdue shot up 54 percent in the past decade, nearly eight times the increase in tenured and non-tenured faculty, Bloomberg pointed out. Meanwhile, the cost for room, board and other expenses for attending the university swelled 60 percent.
To which acting President Timothy Sands responded, “We’re about as lean as we can afford to be.”
Come again, Dr. Sands? He told Bloomberg that tuition has increased because state funding hasn’t kept pace with rising costs, including administering the ongoing flow of government and industry research grants and marketing to out-of-state students who pay more for tuition.
The situation at Purdue, Indiana University and other institutions is why an outsider’s perspective can be so beneficial, and Purdue is about to get just that when Mitch Daniels moves into the president’s office next year.
Daniels, who has been upfront about his intent to rein in costs, will face a culture in higher education that is alien to most businesses.
The price of a college education has ballooned partly because universities have less incentive than the profit-motivated private sector to scrutinize costs. Daniels will bring that incentive—and a long-overdue reality check.
Students and parents who fear being left on the sidelines of an intensely competitive global economy continue shelling out more money to go to school, so schools don’t have any shortage of customers.
And universities, in general, employ people who are more interested in learning than in bottom lines. This is certainly understandable and desirable on many levels. But it creates an environment ripe for waste and inefficiency.
Moreover, university employees don’t feel the backbreaking burden of escalating costs because their children typically are offered free tuition.
As Daniels tries to bring a cost-conscious culture to Purdue, trustees and administrators at universities across the country will be watching to see how the experiment unfolds.
Daniels may be just what the doctor ordered. With an aversion to waste that might be congenital, this is the governor who boasts of whittling state employees to the fewest per capita in the nation.
With instincts like that, the odds are pretty good that costs at Purdue will fall. And if a new austerity works there, it will happen elsewhere.
It’s too late for thousands of students and parents who are stuck with unnecessarily pricey college loans. Those coming up through the pipeline, though, can hope.•
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