A billionaire tech investor made headlines last week with his pledge to pay off the student loans held by Morehouse College’s graduating Class of 2019. Unfortunately, Robert Smith’s multimillion-dollar gift, however admirable philanthropically, is as irrelevant to the problem of student debt as the recent policy proposals from the Democratic presidential field. Whether it’s Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan to use taxpayer dollars to cancel most outstanding student loans for the majority of borrowers, or Senator Bernie Sanders’s promise of “free” (i.e., fully taxpayer-subsidized) tuition for public universities, all such proposals treat ballooning college costs as a naturally occurring phenomenon, outside the reach of human action. The discourse around student debt—which now stands at $1.5 trillion—holds colleges harmless in causing that debt. The sole focus of discussion is instead how best to underwrite rising tuitions with public or private money.
But college tuition is not an act of God, beyond human control. It is a result of decisions taken by colleges themselves—above all, decisions to bulk up their bureaucracies. Bureaucratic outlays rose at nearly twice the rate as teaching outlays from 1993 to 2007, according to the Goldwater Institute. From 1997 to 2012, colleges hired new administrators at twice the rate of any student-body increase, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found. Colleges inevitably claim that government mandates force this administrative bloat upon them. But the vast majority of administrative hires are voluntary: for every dollar in mandated bureaucratic spending from 1987 to 2011, public universities added an additional $2 in discretionary bureaucracy, and private universities added $3, according to economists Robert Martin and Carter Hill. Fiefdoms focused on diversity and student services grew at the fastest clip, in the name of fighting the campus oppression to which minority and female students are allegedly subjected.