College is many things. Cheap is not one of them.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average four-year degree costs about $90,000, including tuition, room and board. That’s up 70% in the past decade and nearly 700% since 1980. Two-thirds of students finish college with some amount of debt. The average amount tops $26,000.
So — finally — students, parents and politicians are beginning to grasp for new ways to put on the brakes on colleges, which have often seemed indifferent to the problem.
One intriguing idea comes from Rick Perry and Rick Scott, the Republican governors of Texas and Florida, respectively. Last year, Perry asked public universities in his state to submit plans for a degree that would cost no more than $10,000 in tuition for all four years. Ten schools have done so, prompting Scott to follow suit last week in his state.
Governors can’t snap their fingers to bring down college costs. But Perry and Scott are on to something.
Higher education costs are inflated by bloated bureaucracies and bills paid with other people’s money. Universities employ professors too busy with research to spend much time teaching. They sink vast sums into money-losing intercollegiate sports. And they spend lavishly on marketing efforts to build prestige and buck up their college rankings.
Then, after deciding what they need to spend, they price accordingly. Their tuition is a function of this bloat and government’s willingness to subsidize them.
The Perry and Scott approach turns the process around, starting with a hypothetical student with $10,000 to spend on tuition. Its appeal is that it puts the interest of the student above all other university concerns.
The Texas universities’ cost-saving ideas are hardly unique. Many are being tried elsewhere. But they present a real path forward.
Several proposed partnering with community colleges, which are largely devoid of the frills that make four-year institutions so expensive. Many cost-conscious students are already starting at two-year schools, then transferring. Formalizing these partnerships would help students and force the four-year institutions to ask themselves why they should charge so much more than their partners.
An even better idea is to push further into online education. Here Texas is just part of a major, potentially transformational trend. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among the colleges offering free, not-for-credit instruction through what are known as massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Some colleges have begun testing online courses for credit.
Online instruction can remove the redundancy of having instructors around the country delivering the same lecture. While student-to-instructor contact is still vital, it should be focused on conferences and study groups.
Not all the $10K-degree ideas are good ones. Bigger subsidies would only mean that the costs would have to be made up elsewhere. And granting more credit for previous experience at work, or in the military, risks the dumbing down of degrees.
Ultimately, however, the calls for inexpensive degrees could help foster an overdue shakeup in higher education. As institutions contend with disruptive technologies, cost-conscious students and penny-pinching state governments, they will be forced to hold down tuition and refocus their efforts on teaching. In the process, they will do a lot of learning.
- Ohio’s Public Universities Must Begin Developing Three-Year BA Degrees (keptup.typepad.com)
- Scott Wants Colleges To Develop 4-Year Degrees That Cost No More Than $10G (tampa.cbslocal.com)
- American Higher Education: Not what it used to be (economist.com)