Commentary: Phil Murphy, free college, and soaring tuitions

College students at 2007 Pittsburgh University Commencement. Photo by Kit via Wikimedia.
College students at 2007 Pittsburgh University Commencement. Photo by Kit via Wikimedia.

Editor’s note: The opinions here are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

By Barbara Franz

On Oct. 18, 2017, at the second gubernatorial debate held at William Paterson University, the Democratic candidate Phil Murphy emphasized that he supports free college education.

Advocating for free community college education, Murphy suggested a public bank to hand out money for students.

Analogous to Andrew Cuomo’s proposal of free tuition for students at New York State colleges, Murphy claimed that according to his plan, loans would be forgiven for those New Jersey students who attend college in New Jersey and remain in the state for five years afterward.

While this seems like a proposal that would be valuable for students, I will leave it to others to assess its impact on our state’s budget. But why are tuitions so high, and is this the only problem that needs to be addressed?

Murphy also said that New Jersey has “defunded” and “ravaged” higher education. Higher education in the state and country is indeed transitioning to a highly regulated and volatile business.

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

This trend is associated with on the one hand the downgrading and exploitation of the educational components of college and on the other the creation of a growing regulatory apparatus, that seeks to measure student learning outcomes with mathematical precision.

What gets lost in the middle is not just the quintessential outcomes that higher education ought to be providing—such as reading, writing and critical thinking skills. While colleges advertise that their graduates are reading wizards with writing talents barely short of Stephen King’s, and the creativity of Steve Jobs—actually teaching students has become an uphill battle.

In order to learn, students should have the right to engage with their professors in small class sizes and with instructors who have the time and expertise to actually “teach” students how to write and analyze texts and experiments, often by repetition and correction.

The scenario of a handful of students enrolled in a course, able to work with a dedicated professor over semesters on deconstructing complex topics, such as gerrymandering in New Jersey or the future plausibility of super-intelligent artificial intelligence, is a naive illusion in today’s academic world.

However, at least as worrisome is the loss of the more intangible elements that a good college education should provide, such as citizenship and civic proficiency and a sense of responsibility for other humans and our environment.

While elusive and delicate, these values are pertinent for the survival of this republic. What happens when leadership clearly lacks some sense of common responsibility and citizenship duties can be seen in the current executive and legislative branches of our federal government.

Instead, profit-seeking, short-term motives and the naive insistence that all learning outcomes ought to be tangible and measurable are at the core of modern college life. Rubrics, charts and retention graphs that demand accountability in quantifiable real world numbers litter the current higher educational road map.

The push to delineate clear student learning outcomes has slipped into the development of measuring tools that are objective on their face and subjective and arbitrary at their core.

To be sure, professors constantly assess learning in and outside of the classroom. But the demand for proof of specific student outcomes reveals a naïve insistence on the lockstep learning and lockstep teaching techniques inherent in the higher education assessment model.

The unique rhythms of student learning and instructor methodologies are ignored in this assessment rat race.  Among the reasons for the quest for numbers and measurable proof of learning is a profound mistrust of the learning process, of the professorial methods that guide student progress, and of the professors themselves.

The rise of over-assessment goes hand in hand with the increased general exploitation of the core element of higher education—the teaching profession.

More than half of all teaching positions in colleges nationwide are part-time. According to a 2013 Academe study by Curtis and Thornton, these so-called adjunct faculty—usually hired for an average of $2,100 per course ( extrapolated to a full course-load of eight classes, that’s $21,000 per year without benefits) — are commonly viewed as cost-savings measures.

Frequently, but not always, adjunct faculty hold masters and MBA degrees, and may not be engaged in or familiar with the most recent research in their fields. Moreover, due to their part- or short time contracts they have no incentives to become invested in the institution and their students.

Adjunct faculty usually don’t hold office hours because often they don’t have offices. Higher ed learning, often defined as the exposure to and digestion of frequently uncomfortable facts, is even more difficult in the online environment where personal student-faculty interaction is limited to virtual platforms.

The new college environments, however, expose students to faculty who are less invested in the students’ development (because they spend much less time on campus) and less interested in the actual learning outcome for individual students (because they work with overfilled classes), even as the professors’ teaching work is continuously assessed.

Assessment needs to be administered, however, which is reflected in the exceptional growth of managerial and administrative positions.

In the name of cost savings in the highly competitive college market in New Jersey and elsewhere, class-sizes have increased, even in online course environments, while part-time instructors have substituted for full-time professors.

Replacing full-time tenured faculty with adjunct faculty would seem to be one efficient way of cost-cutting. But it has not had that effect. Indeed tuition costs have been rising in New Jersey colleges.

Recent work by the Delta Cost Project suggests that cost savings from the increased use of part-time faculty have been offset by increased hiring of administrative staff. (1) As the ranks of managerial and administrative workers grew, the number of faculty and staff per administrator continued to decline.

The study found the average number of faculty and staff per administrator declined by roughly 40 percent in most four-year colleges and universities, and now averages 2.5 or fewer faculty and staff per administrator.

While faculty and support staff have taken pay cuts, the total compensation for administrators in many colleges in New Jersey has increased by 30 to 80 (!!) percent in the past 13 years.

It is not clear what, if any, benefit this highly compensated bureaucracy of administrators brings to the education of students. Thus, higher education is currently experiencing not a financial decline, but an institutional restructuring and income reshuffling from the bottom up.

This leads to an increase in teaching workload and a decrease in compensation for teachers, as well as a reduction in support for scholarship and cutbacks for other curricular activities, such as student advising and mentoring.

But who needs devoted teachers in a world where the college experience is promoted as a journey of personal growth in which learning is one, somewhat uncomfortable, divertissement from a passage that is otherwise focused on fraternities, fashion, fitness and festivities?

(1) Desrochers, D. M., & Kirshstein, R. (2014). Labor intensive or labor expensive? Changing staffing patterns in higher education. Washington DC: Delta Cost Project, American Institutes for Research.

Barbara Franz, Ph.D., is a political science professor at Rider University, and a Morristown resident.

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  1. Socio-Econ 101: Follow the money … Free College Tuition (FCT) is not really free, and that parallel can be drawn from comments in the opening paragraphs, which are consistently overlooked or ignored in the FCT movement. FCT would create an uncontrollable cost the states or the Feds (i.e. me, you, and all taxpayers) for supposedly creating value in the individuals who succeed in college, and would waste even more than is already put up for those who don’t.

    If an individual desires to make him/herself valuable, they will invest in themselves and end up with a marketable skill or trade, and be proud of the accomplishment.