1. Rein in administration spending. Between 1993 and 2007, the number of college administrators for every 100 students grew by 39%, while the number of professors grew only by 18%. That's a great first place to look for recovering funds. Meanwhile, faculty salaries have largely stagnated. While it's hard to find data on college administrator compensation writ large, there has been the high-profile realities of ever-rising college president compensation. Getting a handle on the number of administrators, and on their compensation, is a necessary first step to reducing costs.
2. Reduce the number of services provided by most colleges. This is a large part of achieving number one. And it hurts-- one of the great things about universities is that they provide so many services, clubs, sports, groups, charities, on and on. But all this stuff is expensive, and it contributes a lot to that administrative creep. The sad fact of the matter is that Harvard and Yale can afford to offer all things to all students, but your average state U or private liberal arts college can't. This reflects a larger problem where the absurdly competitive culture around high ed-- competitive between students and competitive between colleges-- has created an expectation that all colleges need to attempt the same things. That means that colleges abandon one of their greatest strengths-- their situatedness, their context. Whenever you read about reforming higher education (usually from conservatives who hate higher education), you always hear about how the university should be this universalized, deracinated structure. That's a terrible idea. Part of the beauty of the modern university system is that individual colleges take on the character of their locale. They should remember their particularized nature and stop trying to provide everything that other colleges do.
3. Stop (or never return to) the madcap physical expansion. During the go-go 2000s, there was a vogue for physical expansion on college campuses, whether new construction or renovation. There was a lot of giving from those who have been enriched during those boom times, but you'll note it did nothing to slow the rise in tuition. This is because of one of the difficulties facing college financial officers: those who give the most want something to show for it, and this often means a new shiny building (with their name on it). As all of these newly minted hedge fund millionaires started looking for new status objects to buy, the started to give to universities, but often with the money earmarked for new construction. The problem is that often what colleges need the most is just donations to the general fund, and that new construction promises future costs in maintenance and upkeep.
Remember, again, the terrible status game that many colleges get themselves into. If Bowdoin gets an expensive new gym, surely Bates must have one too. If Williams redoes its library, the pressure is on Amherst. These physical expansions are ludicrously expensive. Again, the prisoner's dilemma for colleges persists; many want to get out of the cycle but none feels like they can do it unilaterally.
4. Penalize taking longer than four years; incentivize taking less. Student debt figures are inflated by the fact that so many students take more than four years to finish college. Since there clearly isn't much in the way of social expectations pushing students to finish in the traditional four years, it may be time for schools who have to start to enact penalties for students taking longer than four years.
5. Recognize that not everyone is equipped to graduate from college. This is a much longer conversation, one I've engaged in before, but it is worth pointing out that students who are ill-equipped for college take longer to graduate and run up higher debts. Additionally, the rise of more student support services and remediation programs contributes to higher administrative and employment costs. I am a firm believer in the importance of providing students with the support necessary to excel, particularly those from traditionally disadvantaged backgrounds, but I also think that at some point, all of the questions facing the university force us to confront the fact that college for everyone is not a sustainable or desirable system.
Update: Commenter P says
Re: point 1, it is true that there has been unusually high growth in university staffing over the past 20 years. And as a university administrator myself, I can tell you that there is a lot of bloat. (Most of it, at least at my institution, is devoted to maintaining obsolete paper-based business processes that that the private sector modernized decades ago. I'm thinking of things like paper timesheets here.)In the interest of service blogging, here's something via Reihan Salam (a conservative commenter who has constructive criticism and suggestions for higher education) for frequent commenter Phil K that suggests the kind of deracinated college education I abhor:
But there have been two major trends in the past 20 years that have required a lot of administrative hiring. First of all, in the 90s you had the IT revolution, which required a massive staffing increase in IT departments. Second, these days many universities are trying to boost study abroad programs and recruit more international students. This has caused a smaller hiring boom, mainly at less prosperous schools that weren't already doing this. But even at top schools, you see hiring going on to boost programs in China, India, etc.
"You’d create a sustainable economic model by focusing on technological rather than physical infrastructure, and by getting people of means to pay for a specialized experience. You’d also construct a robust network so people could access resources whenever and from wherever they like, and you’d give them the tools to collaborate beyond the lecture hall. Why not fulfill the university’s millennium-old mission by sharing ideas as freely and as widely as possible?"Incidentally, the actual "do this and be safe" edifice in America, of course, is to be born rich. Then you never have to worry about anything.