Runaway College Costs: Q&A with Authors James V. Koch and Richard J. Cebula

Why did you write Runaway College Costs: How College Governing Boards Fail to Protect Their Students?

Who has not heard complaints about the skyrocketing cost of attending college?  Between Fall 2006 and Fall 2020, the growth in the cost of attending a four-year, public college, after taking scholarships and grants into account, rose 16.6% faster than the increase in the Consumer Price Index and even has been greater than the rise in the cost of medical services.  What nearly always has been overlooked in this situation has been the unfortunate, sometimes unknowing role that the members of college governing boards (the trustees) have played in this scenario.  Virtually any significant cost increase on any American campus must be approved by the trustees who are legally responsible for the institution.  They are the gatekeepers.  Our research reveals that trustees at public institutions approve 98 percent of cost-increasing proposals placed in front of them and usually do so unanimously.  We examine why this is true and what can be done to improve the situation. 

What was the most surprising thing you learned through your writing or research?

We thought we would find that significant numbers of trustees, especially those who are alumni of the institutions they govern and are close to it and its students, would lament the cost increases proposed to them and some would vote no.  We found very little evidence of this.  The typical trustee gradually evolves into a “get along and go along” role.  Over time, many trustees end up being co-opted by the institution’s president and its senior administrators.

What is new about Runaway College Costs that sets it apart from other books in the field?

Empirical evidence.  We are the first to collect evidence concerning trustees’ voting patterns, and more importantly, the first to use regression analysis to explore the reasons why trustees vote the way they do.  We show, for example, that the larger the board, the more likely that board is to vote for larger cost increases, presumably because many members of large boards do not become really immersed in their institution.  We also found that the existence of a statewide governing board that must approve individual board cost proposals also results in more moderate cost increases.  Institutions with their “own” governing board that have sole authority of that institution push up costs faster than those that have external governing bodies that monitor them.

What is the most important fact that your book helps to reveal?

The very word “trustee” indicates that members of college boards of trustees hold a trust.  They are fiduciaries, who should be representing the best interests of students and citizens.  However, many trustees forget their fiduciary responsibilities and become uncritical advocates for the institution, its president and faculty, and the institution’s glossy narrative that describes what it hopes to be.  Their support often goes well beyond cheering for the football team and admiring the research of a faculty member and instead gradually transforms them into “more is better” supporters of increased costs (often in the name of improved rankings of one sort or another) that ultimately must be borne by students, their families, and taxpayers.  Not uncommonly, this manifests in the form of grandiose student residence halls, lazy rivers where students can recreate, intercollegiate athletic programs that require athletic fees of $70 per semester hour to make them viable, reduced faculty teaching loads, graduate programs that enroll impressively few students, and mission creep.  Too often, trustees fail to ask critical questions as these “improvements” are placed in front of them.  Often, this occurs either because they do not comprehend how universities operate, or because they do not understand they should act as fiduciaries. 

How do you envision the lasting impact of Runaway College Costs?

Our first hope is that this book will inspire self-reflection and discussion in the higher education community.  Everyone knows that costs have increased substantially faster than the Consumer Price Index and median family income, but very few have focused on those individuals whose agreement/approval is required in order for this to occur – the members of boards of trustees.  Second, in the public sector, we hope that governors and legislators will underline in the law the fiduciary responsibilities of trustees.  Third, we hope that governors and legislators will make mandatory the training of trustees.  A modern university is a complicated place with many different funding sources, public-private partnerships, foundation ties, and alumni support organizations.  Universities do not replicate the businesses and organizations that many trustees operate or work for in their lives away from the university.  It takes time and effort for a trustee to understand the inner workings of a campus.  State governments can make trustees more effective by requiring them to undergo training and in-service learning experiences. 

What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
The need for change.  Over time, we have priced many students out of higher education.  In 1999-2000, a typical manufacturing or non-supervisory worker in the United States had to labor 244 hours to pay the average tuition and fee charge at a four-year, public university.  By 2017-2018, this requirement had climbed to 446 hours, and the aggregate level of student debt currently exceeds $1.56 trillion.  Hence, our hope and expectation is that those who read the book will understand the need for change and support if not demand the necessary reforms to make it occur.  

Order Runaway College Costs: How College Governing Boards Fail to Protect Their Students – published on October 13, 2020 – at the following link:

James V. Koch is the Board of Visitors Professor of Economics Emeritus and president emeritus at Old Dominion University. He served as president of the University of Montana from 1986 to 1990. He is the author or coauthor of numerous books, including The Caterpillar Way: Lessons in Leadership, Growth, and Shareholder Value and The Impoverishment of the American College Student. Richard J. Cebula is Affiliate Professor in the Department of Economics and at The Center for Study of Public Choice at George Mason University. He is the author, coauthor, or coeditor of numerous books, including Economic Behavior, Economic Freedom, and Entrepreneurship. Together, Koch and Cebula are the authors of Runaway College Costs: How College Governing Boards Fail to Protect Their Students.