New high-priced UNC administrator: Not likely to solve problems of soaring costs and student debt

By Dr. Hollis Phelps - University of Mount Olive

UNC President Margaret Spellings announced last Thursday the appointment of Andrew P. Kelly, current director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to the position of Senior Vice President for Strategy and Policy at the university.

According to Raleigh’s News & Observer, the newly-created position, which will begin in August, comes with an annual salary of $245,000, and seems designed to address numerous pressures facing the institution, including “climbing tuition, loan default rates, poor college readiness, lackluster graduation rates and poor productivity.”

As Kelly told UNC’s Board of Governors, “Families are anxious about the cost of college, and they’re desperate for some bold thinking on how to make college more valuable, not just more affordable, more valuable. Policymakers are looking for solutions, and I’m looking forward to working with you all to come up with some of those.”

One hopes, of course, that Kelly will provide concrete solutions to address the anxiety that families and students face, particularly when it comes to the ever-rising costs of higher education and the debt load that the majority of students have to take on. Members of the class of 2016, for instance, are graduating about $37,000 in the hole on average, which is roughly a $2,000 increase from just last year.

That’s certainly an issue for the students themselves, but there’s also evidence that current debt levels—which total $1.3 trillion, second only to mortgage debt—may actually be a drag on the U.S. economy as a whole. Indebted former students engage less in what’s usually considered normal economic activity, such as buying a car or a house, both essential components of a healthy market.

It’s not clear, however, that Kelly thinks this is much of a problem. He’s recently argued that, generally speaking, the long-term benefits of a degree outweigh any debt incurred, making the debt-financing of higher education a sound economic investment. Indeed, much of the talk about student loan debt these days amounts to little more than “political hysteria,” for Kelly.

Perhaps just as troubling is that his newly-created position at UNC is part of the problem that it’s ostensibly meant to address. It’s well-established that one of the major factors driving increases in the cost of higher education is the expansion of university administration, which grew 60 percent between 1993 and 2009. For what it’s worth, that far outpaces growth in tenure-stream faculty positions by a rate of ten-to-one. Indeed, depending on the discipline, Kelly’s salary could easily fund three or four new entry-level faculty positions.

In case you think this line of criticism is unfair, it’s basically Kelly’s own position as well – at least before he landed the gig at UNC. Responding to the wave of student protests that roiled many colleges and universities last year, he noted that the “the aftermath has implications for college costs and postsecondary opportunity, as well.” Although student activism isn’t the cause of administrative bloat, for Kelly it’s a logical conclusion. When faced with pressures, whether these be student demands or those mentioned above, Kelly notes that:

“College execs typically respond in the way they know best: by promising to layer new deans, services, and centers onto an already enormous administrative apparatus. Ironically, protests against the administration will almost certainly grow the ranks, power, and budget of administrators, and somebody will have to pay for the additional overhead. More often than not, students will be stuck with the bill; higher tuition prices, in turn, may further depress access for needy students.”

Kelly goes on to suggest that if we really want to make college affordable and responsive to student needs and concerns, we have to do more than add “middle managers with new titles.” Administrative bloat, for Kelly, clearly isn’t the solution.

All of which is ironic, of course, since that’s precisely the solution being offered here. I don’t begrudge Kelly for taking the position. It’s probably a great gig, with a salary to match. But let’s not pretend that adding a senior vice president for strategy and policy will do much to help students. Not only does Kelly appear dismissive of their plight, he himself doesn’t seem convinced that “managers with new titles” do a whole lot of good when it comes to college affordability.

Hollis Phelps is an Assistant Professor of Religion at the University of Mount Olive in Mount Olive, NC.

By Dr. Hollis Phelps

University of Mount Olive

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