Democratic candidates for president, in their impressive expansiveness, are promising free college. Some limit their proposals to community colleges, others to state-run schools, and a few, going for broke, want also to forgive student debt for private-college tuition. Since no realm of American life has undergone greater inflation in recent decades than higher education, this is no piddling promise. The cost to taxpayers could be in the trillions, though the prospect would please a nephew of mine who this autumn is sending a son to Dartmouth at the annual price of $76,000.
If government is going to pay for college, at least it ought to try to bring down the cost. I taught at a university for 30 years and have a few suggestions. Start at the top: I would reduce the salaries of university presidents by, say, 90%. (At the institution where I taught, the president made more than $2 million when last I checked.) I would also evict them from their rent-free mansions and remove their cadres of servants. The contemporary university president, after all, has little or nothing to do with education, but is chiefly occupied with fundraising and public relations. If universities were restaurants, the president would be a maître d’. To encourage their fundraising skills, perhaps they could be paid a small commission on the money they bring into their schools—cash, so to speak, and carry—excepting that on money used to erect more otiose buildings filled with treadmills, computers and condom machines.
The next big cut in the cost of higher education would be in superfluous administrative jobs, for the contemporary university is nothing if not vastly overstaffed. All those assistant provosts for diversity, those associate deans presiding over sensitivity programs, those directors for student experience—out, out with them. I would also suggest dispensing with courses that specialize exclusively in victimology, the history of victim groups told from the point of view of the victims. Young men and women do not need reinforcement in their already mistaken belief that they are victims because of their skin color, ethnicity or sexuality.
Another place serious money could be saved is college athletics. I’ve read that the highest-paid public employee in most states is the state-university football coach. The school at which I taught is not a state school, but its reasonably successful football coach earned $3.3 million in 2017, ranking him only 32nd among all college football coaches.
Nick Saban, the football coach at the University of Alabama, earns $8.3 million a year. Mike Krzyzewski, the basketball coach at Duke, earns $7 million. The argument for these astonishing figures is that football at Alabama and basketball at Duke more than pay for themselves. The Alabama football “program,” as they like to refer to this most brutal of sports, with its postseason games and television fees, brings in nearly $100 million a year. Duke’s perpetually winning basketball teams doubtless result in more student applications and alumni donations.
Under pure capitalism, Messrs. Saban and Krzyzewski might be said to earn their pay. But if higher education is to be free, as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would have it, we are no longer talking about capitalism. Coaches’ salaries could be greatly reduced and the money earned by college sports—which means chiefly football and basketball—would need to be turned over to the federal government to help pay the cost of education itself.
Which brings us to the faculty. Faculty jobs in American universities have risen well in excess of any visible improvement in the quality of university teachers: $200,000-a-year-or-more professorships are now not uncommon. When I began teaching in my mid-30s, an older friend, long resident at the same university, said to me, “Welcome to the racket.” What he meant is that I would be getting a full-time salary for what was essentially a six-month job, and without ever having to put in an eight-hour day. At the tonier universities, professors in the humanities and social sciences might teach as few as three or four courses a year, the remainder of their time supposedly devoted to research. Like the man said, a sweet racket.
Under free higher education, perhaps it would make sense to pay university teachers by the hour, with raises in the wage awarded by seniority. Surely they could not complain. After all, the two most common comments (some would say the two biggest lies) about university teaching are, “I learn so much from my students” and “It’s so inspiring, I’d do it for nothing.” A strict hourly wage for teachers, as free university education may require, would nicely test the validity of that second proposition.
Free higher education—what a splendid ring it has, sufficient tintinnabulation to cause one to forget the old axiom that you get what you pay for.