Opinion | Beware the Education-Industrial Complex

| November 19, 2014

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Nick Rudnik, Valdosta Today Opinion Contributor:

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was a 2005 documentary, based on a 2003 book of the same name, directed by Alex Gibney. The Academy Award-nominated film details the rise and fall of Houston-based energy trader, the Enron Corporation. Under the leadership of CEO Ken Lay, Enron typified the “new-economy” of the late-1980s to the early-2000s. Enron used Wall Street trading to compete with state-regulated energy monopolies and, via competition, create an energy marketplace.

Over a decade removed, the notion of Enron executives being “the smartest guys in the room” is deeply ironic—as it is supposed to be. Enron collapsed because of widespread manipulation of its balance sheet, reporting loopholes, and the like. Several of its executives were sent to federal prison.

And, why? Because they took advantage of an economic and political system unwilling and unable to combat the racket which became the now-ubiquitous Enron scandal.

I bring in Enron because, in their time, they were truly seen as “the smartest guys in the room.” They were on the cutting edge of an economy firmly grounded in the information age.

Between 2003 and 2013, higher education costs grew by 79.5 percent in the United States. (Bear in mind, healthcare costs increased by only 43.1 percent.) In short, higher education costs are growing faster than healthcare, housing, and food.
Why are costs in the postsecondary education sector of the economy growing so fast? Ask academic officialdom, and they’ll likely tell you it’s because of the need to account for more students requiring postsecondary degrees; upgrading information systems and infrastructure to expand learning and research on the net; costlier fringe benefits to employees, and overhead; or the like.

Washington Monthly in a 2011 report noted that since 1975, the faculty-to-student ratio has stayed largely constant across higher education. But in 1975, the administrator-to-student ratio was one to eighty-four. Today, that ratio sits at one to sixty-eight. Similarly, professional staff-to-student ratios have become markedly worse (in fact, much, much worse).

What’s ironic is that in higher education we, indeed, have “the smartest guys in the room” in the administrative suites and boardrooms at our nation’s colleges and universities making the decisions. These administrators, normally drawn from the faculty, hold doctorates, are scholars in their respective fields, and have exploited the last decade of postsecondary educational growth to erect new buildings, hire more staff, beautify their campuses, and the like. All this, at our expense: students and their parents, and the taxpayers—through state funding (in public institutions), federal grants, student aid, private endowments, and the rest. And administrative growth shows no signs of slowing in higher education, although student admission is likely to decline in the coming decade (simply because of demographic changes in the U.S. population).

American colleges have hired everything from program coordinators, program evaluators, dean’s speechwriters, chiefs of staff, to deanlets, vice presidents, vice chancellors, and more. Honestly, a college president often has a staff that rivals a U.S. congressman—and is typically compensated far better. This should shock the conscience of the American public as we’re the ones, largely, paying for this.

Sure, I romanticize about the state of American colleges at midcentury. The professor who takes on the role of the college dean, or the admissions officer for a short period of time and then returns to the faculty ranks. While changes in the very nature of administration largely prevent this sort of condominium today, we need to embrace the notion of doing more with less. We live in an age of austerity. And this should also be reflected in our public institutions of learning.

In fact, educational programs designed for “professional higher ed administrators” are cropping up all over the country—typically culminating with the rather conspicuous “Ed.D.” post-nominal. This is the real reason for the alarming rise in college tuition in America.

Like Enron, these new “smartest guys in the room” have exploited a public need to their own advantage, in this case: college degrees. We need action to combat this gross mismanagement. We need legislation both at the federal and state level to curb the cost of attending college and to bust up the administrative waste running amok at our public colleges and universities. After all, Americans detest nothing more than bureaucratic waste.

If we fail to rein in university wasteful spending, we’ll all pay the cost via higher student loan debt and a slumping economy. If the Enron example has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be vigilant in breaking-up these kinds of rackets. We should not sit idly by as educator’s raid public coffers to build new classrooms. In all, we need to show “the smartest guys in the room,” they’re not so smart after all.


rudnik-thumbnailNicholas A. Rudnik is currently pursuing a degree in political science with a concentration in American politics at Valdosta State University. Previously, he’s served as a congressional page in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 111th Congress and in the Office of U.S. Congressman Sanford Bishop. Further, Nick has served on staff at an institutional interest group, the Association of American Law Schools, in Washington and has worked in the private sector. He has presented his research, focused primarily on congressional parties and elections, at regional academic conferences and hopes to pursue a graduate degree in political science. Nick is currently completing two manuscripts relating to southern congressional elections and judicial decision-making in the area of campaign finance; he can be contacted via e-mail at narudnik@valdosta.edu. Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickRudnik.

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5 Comments on "Opinion | Beware the Education-Industrial Complex"

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  1. Jim says:

    Im 26 – went to college for five years at Valdosta state. I have a little more than $20k in debt and they told me that I made out GOOD. I never used VSUs rec center, its pool, its coffee shops or any other “”extra””. I went to college online and cant find a job in the market in my major. The career office is a sham. These real “smart” guys really screwed me over. While I think VSU is more cost affective than other schools it really is still a major money waster.

  2. Kevin Hughes says:

    Ill tell you what. These College Administrators got it real good like the rest of the Bureaucrats. Id like to see some of these wise guys get up on the Soapbox and try and get elected to something. Wait…theyre unelected appointed Bureaucrats. Funny how a 20something shows more leadership and more insight than these SMART GUYS. When you run you got my vote Nick so you can go to Atlanta and tear apart all of this Wasteful Spending.

  3. Al says:

    Nick
    I was surprised to read one of your opinion pieces that I agree with. Maybe there’s still hope for you. (lol) I am amazed and dumbfounded at the number of departments, staff, administrators, administrative assistants, etc. Not to mention many of the facilities on college campuses today look like the Taj Mahal. Meanwhile us parents who are footing the bill are struggling just to make ends meet and keep food on the table. One thing left out of your piece is the dramatic rise in tuition since the federal government got in the business of supplying money for education (aid, grants, loans…..) This has turned into a boondoggle for colleges and universities. They will always find ways to justify spending more and more money that has nothing to do with actually providing education to students.

  4. Arnie says:

    I’ve gotta tell you…you wouldn’t find this sort of stuff on the Valdosta Times Website. Valdosta Time is to busy writing about the weather and crime. At least Valdosta Today has good writers who know how to spell. I enjoyed this piece. Nick and Gary do a good job. Valdosta Today 1 Valdosta Times 0. I know where my local news is coming from now…

  5. Ed Tyner says:

    Agreed. I went to Law School and have a BA and a JD. So I know how much school can cost. Now I worry that my kids are going to have to spend much, much more than when I went to school. It’s not because of the Federal Government or anything like that. Most of these public colleges are products of the States. State Governments have allowed public colleges to balloon. This is all due to State Government defunding public education. I’m all for the balancing the budget but we should be investing more in public education. We can either have the taxpayers fit the bill or all of us as individuals. I’d argue that if we all pay a little it’ll be cheaper in the long run.