Higher-Ed’s Endless Mission Creep

Based on informal observation of Virginia’s public colleges and universities over many years, I have oft lamented “mission creep” as a factor pushing the cost of college attendance ever higher. But I never  explored the idea systematically. Fortunately, a new study has done that job for me.

In “Priced Out: What College Costs America,” Neetu Arnold, a research associate with the National Association of Scholars, explores the factors, many of which I have not seen identified before, responsible for the higher-ed affordability crisis. One important section of her study identifies the surge in non-instructional costs.

“Modern American colleges and universities no longer think education alone justifies their existence,” writes Arnold, who based her study on data from 50 leading U.S. universities, including the University of Virginia and George Mason University. “They increasingly divert their attention and their expenditures to non-instructional endeavors — and away from their core mission of instruction.”

Arnold enumerates many sources of non-instructional spending.

Accreditation and federal regulations. “The current college accreditation system is a morass of confusing regulations, bureaucracies, and reporting mechanisms that colleges must keep up with each year,” Arnold writes. “Bureaucratic practices entwine federal and state regulatory agencies and quasi-governmental organizations.”

Accreditation agencies gain their authority from the Department of Education. Colleges and universities submit to the accreditation ordeal because they must in order to receive federal funds such as research grants, student loans, and Pell grants. The costs of accreditation, data-reporting mandates and compliance with other state and federal regulations add up. At UVa, for instance, a Senior Analyst for Academic Compliance is paid $80,000.

Consumer demands. Running like businesses which seek to maximize revenue, colleges and universities cater to students’ demands for a luxurious experience. Arnold describes the s0-called “Club Ed” phenomenon:

College campus dining facilities …have improved in the last generations — socializing hubs, filled with eclectic decor, bright colors, and tasty food, rather than purveyors of cubes of frozen beef from Australia and ice cream labeled by color rather than by flavor. Dining halls now offer cuisine from all over the world, with menu options that appeal to every kind of diet preference — keto, vegan, and so much more. At some schools, such as Cornell, students can watch the chefs prepare meals right before their eyes. Board rates at 4-year universities have increased by 60% between 1986-2018.

Colleges also lavish expenditures on dormitories and amenities to amuse students. Temple University provides flat-screen TVs in every room. Louisiana State provides students a “lazy river.” Universities hire administrators not only to oversee the plush dining and sleeping experiences but to act as “the equivalent of cruiser directors” for demanding undergraduates.

Services for snowflakes. “Millennial and Generation Z students include mental health care high on their list of expected white-glove services, as American adolescents exhibit rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide,” Arnold writes.

Universities spend on luxuries to soothe and placate mentally unstable students — and these luxuries include the careful muffling of all unsettling ideas. Universities’ investments in political activism and feel-good propaganda are not just ideological commitments; they are also ways to cater to student bodies comprised too largely of the entitled and the mentally unstable, who, conflating comfort and safety, want universities to restrict the information they receive and the opinions that they hear. Universities therefore not only invest in additional dorms, varied cuisines, and luxury amenities, but also in the entire panoply of “multicultural services.” When administrators distribute letters which acknowledge the importance of diversity or any other progressive ideology, or make statements about purported “hate crimes” without waiting for the results of the investigation, the purpose is purportedly therapeutic.Significantly, political activists themselves demand “diverse” therapy as a right.

College administrators’ emphasis on “equity” also sublimates the participation-trophy ethos. Every student must receive an “equal” college experience to their peers, down to receiving the donut of their choice — or they will be upset. Universities must cater to students consumed not only by a taste for luxury, but also by envy of any peer whose luxuries are more gold-plated.

Ranking systems. However reluctantly, colleges and universities pay attention to U.S. News & World-Report and other ranking systems because the ratings factor into the decision making of prospective students and their families. Schools in the Top 50 “strike gold,” attracting a higher caliber of student…. which in turn factors into the rankings. Writes Arnold:

Universities alter their spending priorities to improve their place in the USNWR ranking system — even when these incentives discourage colleges from spending efficiently. So USNWR’s “Financial Resources” categories give universities a higher ranking for increasing per student spending on instruction, public service, research, student services, institutional support, and academic support — without considering whether increased student spending actually increases student outcomes. In effect, USNWR judges inputs rather than outputs, and therefore encourages colleges to indulge in wasteful spending so as to game the USNWR system.

Arnold mentions GMU as one of a handful of universities, along with Brigham Young University and the University of George, that are punished in the rankings because they operate more efficiently and expend fewer resources per student. Perversely, Arnold says, delivering the same quality of academic instruction at lower costs punishes schools in their rankings.

Administrator ideologies. College administrators skew even further left than do faculty members. While liberal faculty outnumber conservatives by 5 to 1, administrators outnumber them 12 to 1. Their inclination to social-justice activism predisposes them to spending on political progressive priorities, especially those related to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which have no bearing on the academic experience.

Globalism. Arnold describes “globalism” as a utopian, progressive ideology that promotes commitment to a liberal international community. “Projects include service-learning ventures such as study-abroad programs, encouraging students from foreign countries to study in the U.S. through international education programs, and directly taking stances on political issues related to promoting globalism. Any attempt to pursue a national interest is by definition backwards and reflects an irrational prejudice, racism, and/or xenophobia.”

Globalist idealism dovetails nicely with the recruitment of wealthy international students, who pay full out-of-state tuition and fees with no discounts. Much of the globalist rhetoric about learning about foreign cultures is a joke, however, Arnold contends. Foreign students invariably come from wealthy families and have been Westernized in international schools modeled on American education. “Globalism” consists of American elites interacting with foreign elites. As for American students studying abroad, they spend most of their time in classrooms learning about global theories rather than immersing themselves in the local culture. “Students study abroad to learn that American progressivism is true everywhere.”

Social justice. “Social justice activists have taken over much of higher education administration and possess a stranglehold on offices such as Student Affairs, First-Year Experience, Community Engagement, Equity and Inclusion, Title IX, Sustainability, and other miscellaneous offices,” writes Arnold.

The direct waste of salaries and expenditures is substantial. Social justice activists divert higher education expenditures to social activism and identity group administrative centers, promote segregated events for different identity groups, enforce race and sex discrimination in admissions and staffing, and impose “diversity” and “social justice” statements that restrict employment to the minority of Americans who share their views. … Social justice activism also prompts colleges to lower admissions standards so as to increase the number of students from favored identity groups. Colleges must then place large numbers of academically unprepared students in remedial education courses — courses which now drain universities of vast amounts of money that ought to be spent on rigorous undergraduate education. Every year, American universities spend more than $1 billion on remedial education.

Sustainability. “Sustainability,” writes Arnold, “is a progressive ideology that combines environmental activism, social justice, and anti-capitalism “to achieve its goals of environmental conservation through extreme measures disguised as science.” It also doubles as a rationale to spend more on administration. “Colleges frequently dedicate new offices and departments just to study and promote sustainability — with all the attendant commitment to salaries and other expenses.” At the University of Virginia, for instance, the Office for Sustainability Director earns a salary of $145,000.

The list goes on. Universities expend resources on making an impact locally, nationally and internationally. Typically, that impact entails shaping Americans’ moral, social and political beliefs through “public service” initiatives. Universities expend resources on innovation, entrepreneurship and tech transfer — goals that are divorced from the primary mission of teaching. They expend resources on marketing and public relations to recruit more students, exert influence, and increase revenues. The University of Florida, for instance, employed 48 marketing and communications professions in 2010-11. And universities spend more on expanded concepts of wellness & safety, protecting students from “triggers” that cause “trauma” — such as political views that conflict with their own.


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Bacon’s Rebellion on March 4, 2021 and is crossposted here with permission.

Image: John Guccione, Public Domain

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James A. Bacon

James A. Bacon is the founder of Bacon's Rebellion, a blog dedicated to "Reinventing Virginia for the 21st Century."

5 thoughts on “Higher-Ed’s Endless Mission Creep

  1. “Running like businesses which seek to maximize revenue, colleges and universities cater to students’ demands for a luxurious experience.”

    I’m not so sure about this — I will never forget the week when UMass Amherst Dining Services (a) won some national award for food excellence and (b) had one of its dining commons shut down by the health department for multiple, serious (potentially life-threatening), food safety violations.

    Nor I will I soon forget the recruitment video that included shots of Boston Harbor without mentioning that Boston is 90 miles (and 2-3 hours) west of Amherst.

    A lot of this needs to be seen as what it is — a Potemkin Village intended to impress parents and hence recruit students. It’s an increasingly competitive market — there aren’t enough 18-year-olds to fill all the seats in higher education today, not to mention enough 18-year-olds who (a) are qualified to do college-level work and (b) have the ability to pay to attend. So they lie.

    Bluntly, they lie — just like Potemkin did.

    The Marriott Corporation can’t do that because they depend on repeat business and they know that their guests are totally free to go somewhere else the next time — in a way that students are not. Yes, a student can transfer — next year — but even then it inevitably will cost extra money and likely delay the student’s graduation. Institutions know that once they’ve got a student, they’ve *got* the student.

    And as someone who was a college student in the 1980’s, I don’t remember college food being that bad back then. What I have noticed is a shift from the traditional American “comfort” food to the exotic non-American stuff, and as that has a higher labor content in preparation, it’s not surprising to find that (on an institutional level) it’s more expensive to provide.

    Some of this has been directed within the objective of “healthy eating”, but reality is that a McDonald’s salad contains 425 calories and 21.4g of fat, compared to the 253 calories and 7.7g of fat in the standard burger, and other examples abound. The stir-fry prepared at your table may be palatable, but between the oil, the sodium and the rest (including MSG, remember that the “S” stands for “sodium”), it’s not necessarily more healthful. (Not that your average ideological campus administrator is likely to be confused with facts…)

    But the larger question is which would the students prefer to eat? And which, when given a chance (i.e. off-campus competition), *do* they eat? It’s McDonald’s and pizza — and if they actually preferred the chef preparing stirfry at their table, the market would provide that because they’d be going to establishments providing that — except that they aren’t. They aren’t willing to pay for it — they don’t….

    That’s my point here: They already have paid for the university food, and being tired & hungry, they will choke it down. But given a chance to make a choice, they don’t choose it, and that’s why I have a real problem that any of this is intended to meet student wishes. Call me cynical, but I’d be more inclined to believe that it is instead intended to separate them from the “comfort foods” of their childhood — so as to make it easier to indoctrinate them.

    It will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in the post-Covid (gulag) era, but what a lot of institutions (UMass Amherst comes to mind) fail to remember is that they must replenish the students who graduate. And with the horror stories coming out of there, with *parents* publicly describing the place as a “prison”, it will be interesting to see how their recruitment shakes out.

    Although Potemkin Villages do look impressive — as does the sunrise over Boston Harbor when you don’t know that it was 5AM at the time….

    1. Ummm, it’s Amherst that is west of Boston, and actually on the other side of a mountain range. (The Appalachians split in Massachusetts, becoming the White and Green Mountains in New Hampshire and Vermont, respectively.

      While Massachusetts is a relatively small state, to go east from Amherst one must first go either north or south around the Quabbin Reservoir — as all the direct roads lie underneath it. This is why helicopter ambulances fly east to Worcester, while wheeled ambulances must instead go west and then south to Springfield.

      90% of the people in Massachusetts (and an even greater percentage of young people) live within I-495, i.e. in the eastern portion of the state. MIT got the “mechanical arts” portion of the Morrill Grant, and it might have made sense to have the agriculture school in Amherst. Particularly before most of five adjacent towns were flooded in the 1930s to create the Quabbin. But it doesn’t make sense to have the flagship state university there today.

      It’s not just that most of the in-state students live a couple hours to the east, but everything that a young person wants to do is at least that far away. The nearest beach is in Connecticut, and it’s a good 3 hours to Cape Cod. Excepting a few largely unknown ski areas that largely cater to beginners, the ski areas are either up in Vermont or off I-93 in New Hampshire, which is even further away. And the nearest “decent-sized” cities are Boston (MA) & Hartford (CT), with Hartford being closer. Hartford’s also the nearest airport that you can fly out of, although you can go ~10 miles to the west and take Amtrak down to New Haven (CT) — and then wait for another train to take you up to Boston.

      And it doesn’t help that the local communities not only despise UMass students but have literally reincarnated “Jim Crow” laws, only based on UM student status instead of race. No one said much last month when the local town governments literally ordered private employers to fire all of their employees who were UMass students, and to breach contracts with customers who were UMass students. Then UMass decided to arbitrarily 200 students who *allegedly* attended a party, saying that they can have due process later — at which point it will be moot because they will otherwise have *flunked* out because they couldn’t attend classes. And today’s student newspaper discusses students upset about being denied career-essential in-person lab experiences, in some cases saying that they only reason they were on campus was to get this.

      My guess is that the cumulative “blow back” on this will be significant. It’s not like we have younger brothers & sisters anymore, but we do have cousins and high school guidance counselors, who undoubtedly will hear about this. It will be interesting to see how this shakes out…

  2. Education is not really education anymore, and worst of all, what poses as education appears to be determined to eventually price itself out of the market.
    Real education is still as highly valuable as it ever was.
    If historically, a high quality liberal education produced a healthy number of deep thinkers, free thinkers, reasonably open-minded people, the idea was always that these people would in turn, improve society.
    The thinking in higher educational circles now appears to be a performance end run fast tracking itself around processes that used to take a good measure of a lifetime. Only they have replaced a thing of long lasting and time tested value with a thing that has very little value – in fact, perhaps no more value than the exceedingly breakable and poorly designed cheap piece of junk found upon a Walmart shelf.
    A university should offer an inquiring mind all the wonders of the world.
    Instead it now offers a baby pacifier soothie sucker to that same sucker reminiscent of Barnum and Bailey’s “born ever minute.” Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. Where’s a Toto when you need him?

    1. The other thing to remember is that while John Henry Newman was talking about the education of the sons of the idle rich, John Morrill’s intent was to help young men earn a living from the rocky soils of Vermont — so that they wouldn’t move to Ohio.

      The vast majority of our institutions of higher education are either products of the first or second Morrill Act, former Normal Schools (vocational institutions intended to train K-12 teachers), or some incarnation of a community college. And the post-WW-II “GI Bill” was largely intended to keep returning veterans out of the workforce so as to prevent a return to the pandemic unemployment which had preceded the war.

      Brutal reality is that the vast majority of students attending an IHE are primarily there to get “the piece of paper” which will enable them to get “a good job” upon graduation.

      And the real problem was created by the US Supreme Court in 1971 by the _Griggs v. Duke Power Co_ decision (401 U.S. 424) — aptitude tests for management applicants were decreed to be “racist”, but requiring a college degree (in anything) wasn’t. And thus large companies — who desperately needed *some* criteria to separate those whom they would hire into management positions and those whom they wouldn’t — and hence a “college degree” started getting required for everything.

      I once ran into this in a part-time trucking job — my co-workers encouraged me to apply for the vacant manager position because they weren’t eligible to apply because they didn’t have college degrees, and they’d prefer to have a manager who knew how to drive a truck (and actually *had*) as opposed to one who didn’t. But had a college degree — in *something*…

      Higher education does two things concurrently — providing an education and selling a credential. Arguably it is now only doing the latter — and the real question is at what point will those credentials no longer be worth what the IHEs are charging for them…

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