Eliminate Tenure and Cut the Cost of College?

Why, exactly, college is so expensive is a matter of considerable debate. Disagreement about why college costs keep rising, and rising so fast, may also impede any efforts to curtail the problem.

One observer has got both a theory for rising costs and a solution about how to bring them down. According to a recent piece in Forbes by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s Daniel Bennett:

To slow the growth of tuition, we need reforms that attack the inefficient cost structure and low productivity in higher education. We have recently suggested a number of such reforms in our book-length policy research tool, 25 Ways to Reduce the Cost of College, which features 25 chapters, organized into five topical sections, each describing a different way that college administrators and policy leaders can make college less expensive. One such policy suggests that colleges reform their academic employment policies by replacing tenure with one of a number of alternatives that would preserve the holy grail of higher education, academic freedom, which is necessary to prevent faculty from being arbitrarily dismissed for saying or writing things that administrators or influential outsiders consider wrong or offensive.

Basically, Bennett believes that eliminating tenure, the practice whereby senior academic’s cannot be dismissed without just cause, would help reduce the cost of college. This is because, as Bennett explains, the “dynamic nature of the global economy requires that organizations have the flexibility to adapt to changes in the world. …Tenure… significantly reduces a college’s ability to efficiently reallocate resources in response to consumer demand.” This seems to make sense, but I’m not convinced. Preserving academic freedom is important, but how much money would this change save?

Now the true wonders of tenure may be rather overstated. Designed to ensure that qualified academics are not dismissed for uttering controversial opinions, many have argued that tenure mostly ends up supporting unproductive faculty. With tenure, academics have little incentive to continue to do valuable research.

And Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have argued quite convincingly in Higher Education? that tenure doesn’t even really protect academics who utter controversial opinions. The quest for tenure, meanwhile, may actually act to stifle rising academics from researching or uttering controversial opinions.

Because the concept of tenure is so utterly foreign to most professionals, it often looks like a excellent thing to attack. Perhaps tenure doesn’t really do a great job preserving academic freedom or helping colleges “efficiently reallocate resources in response to consumer demand.”

Still, it’s unclear why eliminating tenure would keep the cost of college down. Over the past quarter century professors’ salaries have increased between 2.8 to 4.1 percent. That’s about in line with the rate of inflation.

College tuition, meanwhile, has increased at twice the rate of inflation during the same period. So tenure isn’t the problem. Try again.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer