The ‘Most Important’ Question About Where to Go to College

The oldest daughter of President Barack Obama is now touring colleges. The media was lately full of stories about young Malia (just like regular people!) taking trips to check out some college campuses. What should she be asking about colleges, however?

Should she be worried about, say, safety? Maybe if her intended major is available? She also might want to find out a little about the relative privacy of institutions, considering the way she’ll likely be a target for photographers, etc. once she becomes an adult.

But why should the first family be concerned with such practical questions? No, they should be very interested in the finances and governance structures of American colleges! So argues Rebecca Schuman over at Slate:

Barack and Michelle Obama have not had the chance to ask the single most important question on any campus tour: “What percentage of the courses here are taught by tenure-line faculty members?”

Now, it is possible that the Obamas, like many Americans, believe that attendance at an elite university automatically means that the people teaching Malia’s courses will be earning the bulk of that extortionate tuition money (anywhere from $100,000 for out-of state costs at UC-Berkeley to $300,000 at NYU). It is possible that the Obamas believe that most, if not all, of Malia’s professors will never have to draw public assistance and will be able to meet with Malia in their own offices. Given the schools’ prestige, one would assume that the Ivy League universities on Malia’s radar—she has toured Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Penn, and Yale—would entrust the scions of privilege and overachievement in their care to the top minds on the faculty roster.

Schuman goes on to point out, helpfully, that many of the colleges the young woman has toured do pretty bad on this measure. But the Obamas are surely not going to ask this question.

This is not because the president, the first lady, and their daughter are assuming that “attendance at an elite university automatically means that the people teaching Malia’s courses will be earning the bulk of that extortionate tuition money.” The faculty spending question is important, but it’s not really that important to parents. They want to know their money isn’t being wasted, yes, but waste to most families doesn’t have much to do with relative institutional support for tenure-track faculty. And, leaving aside the fact that using adjunct professors might not really hurt collegiate learning, the vast majority of high school students probably don’t even know what tenure-track means.

What’s more, both the president and his wife worked for many years in the University of Chicago system and probably know pretty well what how tuition works. Where all of this tuition is going isn’t a mystery; a lot of it goes toward academic administration and a lot of it pays for employee health care and retirement.

Most importantly, however, the sticker price is mostly an illusion. Only a few rich people (the Obamas enjoyed an income of $477,383 last year) pay $45,000 for tuition every year. Even at schools like Columbia or Yale, which have very few actual poor people, most students and their families don’t pay anything like full price.

What’s perhaps more troublesome about this piece, however, is the conceit that people would be really concerned “if they only knew the truth.” She writes that “If I were Malia’s parents, I’d be asking where that money was going. Perhaps if the president and Mrs. Obama start asking the right questions, enough other parents will, too.”

That doesn’t really make much sense. It’s true that most Americans probably think tuition mostly goes to pay for the traditional professor, the sort of guy who sits around in a nice office wearing a tweed blazer and researching English poetry or 3rd century Rome or something. But the fact it doesn’t work like that, and schools tend to assign their teaching duties increasingly to adjunct professors. Is a problem only for people who want to be tenure-track faculty, people like Schuman, who has a Ph.D. in German studies and left academia because she couldn’t get tenure.

But conservatives have spent years generating anger among Americans by suggesting that limited taxpayer and tuition dollars were paying for dilatant (presumably tenure-tack) faculty. There are probably few groups in American more resented than professors. Parents wouldn’t be all that concerned to learn universities didn’t spend so much money on professors.

Note also that one of the best American colleges in terms of supporting tenure-track faculty is Iowa State University (go Cyclones!). This is a school Malia Obama is decidedly unlikely to attend.

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