Higher Education

on cost control and learning from newspapers

In the Chronicle a piece on "What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers' Decline." And yes, I addressed that here recently. In short, I think the comparison is somewhat useful. If colleges think of themselves primarily as content providers then they are in trouble. Long ago, in an age of information scarcity that might have been the case. Also I think journalists and faculty share in common a preference to not think too much about how the budget sausage gets made. That's also something we might want to change.

But I think there's a deeper issue. And I will not claim any expertise on this topic (as opposed to all other topics I address on my blog, ahem), but it would appear that it is quite difficult to actually understand the accounting of higher education institutions… to the point where there is fierce debate over why college costs have risen so much, though part of the debate/uncertainty is because there are complex factors involved here.

So you'll have to excuse my oversimplification here, but tell me what you think of this chart.

Institution Yearly, full-time tuition cost
NYS Community College $3392
SUNY Comprehensive College $4995
SUNY Research University $4970
Online For-Profit $15450

Well, I was going to add average class size but I couldn't find it for each institution. Also I should note that the online school just offered a per credit cost for bachelor's programs ($515) so I multiplied that by 30. A couple other things to note here. First, no one pays this price. It's like that sticker price of an automobile. Second, this doesn't reflect fees. The fees at the comprehensive college and university are higher, but they provide a fuller range of services. (In turn the university has higher fees than the college for much the same reason.) Third, these are in-state tuition costs for the first three.

So, anyway, the first thing I think you can note here is that as an in-state student you will pay around $20K for the tuition part of your higher education. There's nowhere else you are going to put that money that will be a better investment. The second thing you might notice is that there is really no cost difference between the comprehensive college and the research university. The community college is less but doesn't offer the same degrees. The point is that the research focus of the university does not cost the student more money. The student:faculty ratio is the same at both schools (though the univ has a larger avg. class size). The comprehensive college has a higher proportion of part-time faculty.

It's important to note that tuition only represents a fraction of the cost of college. It's about 1/4 of the cost. Room and board, personal expenses, and transportation add up to about $12K. However I would think that those costs would have to reflect the general costs of living in the area of the university, or at least wouldn't be more than that. That is, you wouldn't think this would be the site of college cost outpacing inflation. 

The remaining $2-3K is college fees and books, for a total of $20K/yr for a 4-yr public SUNY degree.

I wonder about the fees part. Maybe one could opt out of some of these costs. I don't want to use your gym. I don't need your health services. I don't want to be involved in your athletic/recreation programs. That's a tough call as it would obviously raise the cost for those who wanted/needed those services. But you could be talking $700/yr. And then there are book costs (*cough* open access online textbooks *cough*).

However the point I really want to make, going back to the newspaper analogy, is the lion's share of the cost of college has nothing to do with instruction and even less to do with the content delivery element of instruction which might be analogized with newspapers. My way of thinking about it is that you've gotta live somewhere and you gotta eat. You're going to drive around and have "personal expenses" regardless of whether you're a student or not.

So I say fine. Strip it all down. Live in your parents' house. Cut out most of the fees except library and technology fees, which you need for curriculum. Use open access textbooks wherever possible. Cut the cost to $6K a year,  $600 per course. And that's the sticker price that no one actually pays. You still have the same faculty teaching the same load and the same size courses. You haven't impacted that portion of the budget at all. Teach them on campus or online.

See what the students and parents want to do. I'm guessing that they will elect to live on campus and pay those extra service fees. But maybe not. Either way it shouldn't necessarily affect the educational/research mission of the institution.

Does that seem like such an unreasonable price for an education? Meanwhile you give away all the course content for free. Open access textbooks and lectures are free on demand. You ask students to pay for interaction with faculty–for evaluation, for mentoring, for seminar discussion, for partnering in research, etc. It's not like newspapers at all, and when you start to think about it in those terms it gets difficult to do entirely online, at least with current technologies.

It's in vogue to bash higher education, but it's probably all too common for a student to commute or even live on campus and end up paying more for his/her new car during the four years on campus than s/he pays for tuition.