As Protevi likes to keep reminding everyone on Facebook, it's been awhile now since I first started arguing that we haven't been paying sufficient attention to the role of institutional debt as a driver of the increasingly alarming developments in U.S. universities, especially those in the public sector. I've gestured in this direction before on NewAPPS, but the appearance of a new piece on the subject by Josh Freedman on Forbes.com provides a perfect opportunity to develop the point a bit more.
Let me begin, then, by making a fairly bold claim. Taking the problem of institutional debt seriously makes it possible to provide a consistent account of many of the major problematic trends in U. S. higher education: rapidly accelerating tuition costs; significant declines in financial aid coverage; cuts to or elimination of low-enrollment departments and programs, experiments with mass-market distance learning and online education, and a general move toward 'Responsibility Centered Managment' (RCM) administrative models; dramatically increasing pressure on faculty at the level of compensation, workload, job security and working conditions; the outsourcing of many university functions to private contractors; building booms, especially those aimed at increasing campus amenities or leveraging university owned real estate for commercial purposes; and finally, continuing increases in administrative spending, especially in development offices and other areas concerned with financial management and business operations.
All of this, which may otherwise seem contradictory and difficult to make sense of, can consistently be referred back to the urgent pressure that rising institutional debt imposes upon university operations: the need to maintain a sufficiently robust revenue stream to satisfy credit rating agencies and thus keep borrowing costs, and the costs of servicing existing debt, from exploding. Freedman provides, especially in the later parts of his article, an excellent discussion of how this works.