Economist and former LSU Professor Robert Martin criticized the ever-rising costs of tuition Thursday while contending colleges are largely to blame and must look in the mirror.
Speaking at an LSU public lecture, Martin said for three decades colleges nationwide have continued to rapidly increase student costs while adding more administrative overhead and de-emphasizing classroom teaching.
Martin said the increasing student loan debt could be the nation’s next “credit crisis” to slow consumer spending and the pace at which young people start families and build households.
Martin’s new book, “The College Cost Disease: Higher Cost and Lower Quality,” was published in May.
He is a retired professor emeritus at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
“Until we get the higher education costs under control, we can never solve the (college) access problem,” Martin said. “This is going to be the No. 1 in higher education, I believe, for the next several decades.”
Quoting economist “Herbert Stein’s Law,” Martin said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
LSU, for instance, costs $6,350 in tuition and fees, but the university estimates the total cost of attendance per year at about $23,000 when counting tuition, housing, textbooks, meals, transportation and other costs.
Many private colleges nationally cost more than $40,000 a year in tuition and fees, although federal aid and scholarships can offset much of the costs.
The problems include continuing to increase costs during economic recessions, he said.
Some of the reasons for escalating costs include extra college services, unfunded government mandates and economic market conditions, Martin said, but the primary reasons are internal, or “inside the black box.”
Citing the late economist Hoard Bowen, Martin said colleges do everything they can to “maximize their reputations,” spend limitlessly to supposedly improve “quality,” then raise and spend all the money they can.
“The cumulative effect is ever-increasing expenditures,” Martin said, which are offset by ever-increasing tuition levels.
Martin said that, in 1993, colleges averaged 5.75 administrators for every 100 students and that grew to 7.9 administrators by 2007.
“The other part of the economy is going in the opposite direction, in terms of middle management, as higher education,” he said. “Something inside is wrong.”
Reputation matters immensely for colleges, Martin said.
There is little competition at the top for schools such as Harvard University and Princeton University, so they can charge whatever they want and the tuition hikes trickle down nationwide.
There are few good ways to accurately measure college performance, he said, especially the value of classroom teaching.
So professors over-emphasize research and publishing, which are more easily gauged.
Similarly, Martin said, colleges all try to grow beyond their missions — “mission creep” — and create academic duplication to chase more revenue because they are not accurately rated and rewarded for following their true missions.
LSU freshman Hana Chang, of Zachery, said she fears the escalating costs, especially in terms of looking down the road at graduate school.
“That’s scary,” Chang said.
“I’ll have to work harder, and I’ll tell my parents to work harder,” she said with a laugh.
Martin said there is some reason for optimism.
The increasing costs are going to force reforms in the future, he said, and the growth of online and distance learning will restore the value of teaching.