Bloated Universities: Bad Education, Bad Economics

The Van Wickle Gates of Brown University

It must be something in the air. We all sense that Brown is in a time of transition. This academic year alone has marked the installation of a new provost and the announcement of the resignation of our beloved president. However, it is a transition long gone unnoticed that deserves our utmost attention. Brown, like most of its fellow colleges and small universities across the United States, is slowly but steadily morphing into an institution of everything-under-the-sun education, diverting its resources among everything from expanding graduate departments to lavish new athletic facilities. The consequence of this indiscriminate approach to higher education is the shortchanging of undergraduate education.

Brown can and should boast about a strong undergraduate program. The university consistently ranks highly in undergraduate teaching, likely the best indicator of a robust undergraduate education. Yet recent trends suggest that this high caliber may be difficult to maintain. According to the Office of Institutional Research, Brown’s in-house university statistics team, in the last 10 years graduate enrollment has increased by 479 students and undergraduate by 369. With the completion of its new facility this past summer, the Alpert Medical School will increase the size of its entering class by 20 student in 2012. However, despite the uptick in student enrollment at all levels (with greater growth at the graduate level), in the last six years the total number of full-time instructional faculty has increased by only 32.These statistics underscore the University’s intention to dedicate much of its new resources to graduate and medical students. While there is nothing objectionable about this in itself, nothing comes without trade-offs. The ratio of undergraduate students to instructional faculty in the last six years has risen by roughly a tenth. Brown could have significantly reduced that ratio, bolstering its core strength: the quality of undergraduate teaching. Instead, we have accepted a general model of everything-under-the sun education that leaves little room for cultivating a specialized core strength. The harm to the undergraduate program seems marginal now, perhaps giving us temptation to ignore it. But as the old adage goes: If you find yourself traveling down the wrong path, the sooner you turn around, the better.

Disproportionate graduate and medical school expansion is only part of the story. Further diluting the resources directed to undergraduates is the University’s extravagant spending on construction. Certainly, the maintenance of academic buildings is a necessary expenditure. But Brown seems to have stretched the definition of necessary. A state-of-the-art aquatics center, likely to be used by the few dozen members of the swim team, a dozen more casual swimmers and the half-dozen swim team fans is the latest of the University’s construction adventures. Recent construction also included the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center, the home of Brown’s pool tables and a campus cafe, and Pembroke Hall, an academic building I have never seen anyone go into. The one prominent academic building recently renovated amounted to the moving of the structure from one street corner to another a block away. Again, there is nothing wrong with construction in itself, but profligate spending on construction unrelated to undergraduate, or indeed any, education from aquatic centers to campus cafes denies the undergraduate program improvement it would have achieved had the University aligned its spending priorities with its mission.

A rising neglect of undergraduate programs is not particular to Brown. Across the nation, universities of Brown’s size have become increasingly bloated with graduate programs and ambitious expansion projects. No statistic makes this clearer than the cost of college compared to the inflation rate. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the price of a degree at a four-year private college has outpaced inflation in the last 30 years by 234 percent. Under competitive market conditions, universities would not be able to hike tuition to finance spending not directly beneficial to undergraduates without suffering a significant drop in demand. But the education market is under the spell of a psychological distortion. From the time a child is conscious of a thing called a college, he or she is inundated with sayings about college being the road to opportunity. Whether true or false, this hype artificially maintains a high demand for degrees. Our culture also has come to regard college attendance as a signal of ability, rather than as a place where ability is developed. To paraphrase: Getting in counts for more than what you learn while you are there. Taken together, a guaranteed high demand and the customer’s (student’s) attitude of less emphasis on the content of an undergraduate curriculum gives colleges no incentive to give each student the most bang for his or her buck. Instead, administrators have been able to fund their pet projects with the tuition of unknowing families and students distracted by the allure of owning a degree.

However, as with any bubble, there comes a point where people get savvy and sell. Particularly in hard economic times that do not appear to be vanishing anytime soon, the accelerating cost of college will eventually drive families to become cost-conscious and demand the maximum return to the undergraduate student for the lowest cost. That will mean an undergraduate education focused on the essentials. Like any business, universities ought to prepare for future market conditions. I hope colleges adjust for this coming reality, if not for the sake of undergraduates then out of economic rationale.

While the whole higher education system is cause for worry, as a proud Brown student, I hope that our school in particular adjusts its recently wayward course. Brown, like any market participant, should produce what suits its comparative advantage. Therefore, forget the overblown emphasis on research and graduate instruction and at the other extreme a pure liberal arts education. These are best suited to much bigger or much smaller institutions. Let us seriously embrace the notion of the university-college — that is, a place of great undergraduate education with research opportunities afforded by a set of limited graduate programs. Let us not lose sight of the word that made Brown great — the word that follows the hyphen.


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About the author

Oliver Hudson is editor emeritus of the Spectator and a graduate of Brown university in Applied Math-Computer Science.

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