Sonneborn lecture: Range of causes, ‘no easy solutions’ on college costs

Don Hossler wrapped up his Indiana University Sonneborn Lecture on the rising cost of a college education with a paraphrase of the classic quote from a 1970 Pogo comic strip:

“We have met the enemy and they are us.”

Don Hossler

Don Hossler

At least, he argued, university faculty and administrators should recognize that they are responsible for establishing priorities and making spending decisions that influence what students pay.

Hossler, professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy studies in the IU School of Education, received Indiana University’s 2015 Tracy M. Sonneborn Award, given each year to a faculty member selected for excellence in both teaching and research.

He wasn’t able to present the Dec. 8 lecture himself, so his School of Education colleague Barry Bull read the remarks that Hossler had prepared for a mostly faculty audience in Whittenberger Auditorium.

It’s true, Hossler wrote, that tuition at public universities has risen in part because state funding for higher education has failed to keep pace with growing enrollment.

That’s unlikely to change, he said in the lecture, titled “Why Does College Cost So Much? Some Notes on Institutional Agency.” But universities can exercise some control over how they spend their money, and those decisions do influence the costs that students pay.

Hossler emphasized that his remarks addressed national trends for public research universities, not Indiana University in particular. Drawing on his own research and data from other sources, such as the Delta Cost Project funded by the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, he examined the evidence for and against several models and theories designed to explain college cost trends.

One framework that describes recent trends, he said, is “the academic ratchet and the administrative lattice,” the idea that faculty have focused more narrowly on research responsibilities while administrative duties have expanded to require more management and professional staff.

Research has become more expensive, with costs growing for labs, computer infrastructure and increasingly complex legal compliance. Research requires subsidies, which can come from tuition.

Meanwhile, universities hire more part-time and non-tenure-track faculty to teach courses and more staff for student advising and other tasks that once would have been the responsibility of professors.

Another factor, he said, is that institutions engage in “prestige-seeking behaviors.” That can mean spending more money on enrollment management, public relations, fundraising and merit-based financial aid to boost their scores in college rankings.

Hossler said in the lecture that there are “no easy solutions” to the problem of rising college costs. But his own bias, he said, is that faculty should address the issue via collaborative governance rather than letting government officials and other external forces dictate what will happen.

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