Why does college cost a lot more now than it used to? This is a source of continual debate. Different people believe different factors are at play here. Some blame building projects. Some blame professors’ low work load. Some blame declining state support.

According to an article by Robert Martin, emeritus professor of economics at Centre College, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the real reason for college cost increase is the declining power of the faculty. As he explains:

Between 1987 to 2008 for research universities, colleges, and public master’s-level institutions reveals that the number of faculty and administrators per student actually grew over those years. But we can’t lump faculty ratios and administrative ratios together, because they are significantly different. On the academic side, the tenure-track ratio increased modestly at public research universities and to a greater extent at private research universities and colleges. But in both cases, the institutions significantly increased their use of non-tenure-track full-time and part-time faculty. So although faculty-to-student ratios went up, most of the increase was based on the use of contract and part-time faculty.

So there are more professors, but there are fewer powerful, tenure-track, professors and a lot more adjunct stuff who teach students.

On the administrative side, the ratios of executives to student and professional staff to student increased—the latter by 50 percent. In 1987, except at private research universities, where administrators outnumbered tenure-track faculty, colleges had approximately as many tenure-track faculty as full-time administrators. By 2008 there were more than twice as many administrators as tenure-track faculty at all types of institutions.

But what this increase really means is this, the more people an academic institution employs who are not academics, the more non-academic things matter to universities. Martin:

If it were true that faculty members have too much influence, then all full-time-faculty increases would have been in tenure-track positions, and academic costs would have risen faster than overhead costs. In fact, overhead costs grew faster than academic costs, and institutions economized on the use of tenure-track faculty and spent heavily on overhead staffing. Now, as then, faculty members are part of the cost problem; however, the most significant problem stems from administrators and governing boards, who hold authority over resource allocation. Tenure-track faculty members’ influence on campus priorities has declined steadily, while the number of nonacademic professional staff has proliferated.

It’s not entirely an air-tight case. “Resource allocation” doesn’t require college administrators to hike tuition. Indeed administrators and governing boards could, if they were so inclined, enact policies designed to increase outside funding and lower tuition and overhead expenses.

But that’s not what happened. Indeed, over time it appears the more management American universities have the less effective they become at managing things to keep education affordable and high quality. [Image via]

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