What Can Be Done to Lower the Cost of Higher Education?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Yesterday’s post examined some of the factors that contribute to making higher education so expensive. Facilities and equipment costs; hiring a small army to instruct students, maintain the campus, and care for students; and mission creep were all cited as reasons that colleges and universities must charge so much for their services. In addition, I pointed out that a majority of these costs are the result of societal forces or student, parent, or potential employer pressures, rather than the sole responsibility of the institutions themselves. There is no question in my mind that an education is generally a worthwhile investment, but questions do linger about what, if anything, universities can do to curb the rising costs of higher education.

Rising Costs Across the Board
The report referenced for much of the information in yesterday’s post (Smith-Parker, 2010) contains a complicated analysis of the rising costs of higher education in comparison to other cost in our society since 1971. The conclusion is that higher education is a service industry, similar to medicine, dentistry, and other skilled fields relying on highly educated professionals. That said, the 1,293% tuition increase at Smith-Parker’s institution between 1971 and 2011 is consistent with changes in other services within the same category (Archibald & Feldman, 2010). This point is nicely illustrated in the following graph comparing the cost of dentistry to that of higher education:

(Smith-Parker, 2010, p. 25)

We certainly are at a point as a society where we are not giving dentistry or medicine a free pass for their high costs, so higher education is probably worthy of the same scrutiny. First, however, let’s look at some of the ways in which education should not cut costs and how that might provide additional insight into ways in which the price of higher education could be reduced as well as shed some light on the values of the culture we live in.

What Universities Can’t Do to Keep Costs Down
Because of their service oriented mission, there are several things that universities do not, cannot, or should not do that your average profit-hungry corporation does as a matter of course. While most universities carefully consider every cost cutting efficiency possible, the commitment to actual people in the institution and to providing the best possible educational experience makes some tactics inconceivable. Outsourcing faculty, staff, etc. to India is patently ridiculous aside from the very real fact that having interactions with people on campus aids in retention (Patton, Morelon, Whitehead, & Hossler, 2006).

Trimming degree programs and their associated people to focus exclusively on the money makers, while being inhuman or even monstrous, makes for a one dimensional education that will not help to produce the types of well-rounded thinkers needed to survive in a global economy.

Finally, while some institutions do hire a disproportionate number of adjuncts, employing mainly part-time workers and adjunct faculty to avoid paying benefits and higher wages is not only immoral, but deprives the students of the depth, perspective, and confidence of interacting with full-time, long-standing faculty.

These three things, among others, are what distinguish the non-profit educational institution from the profiteering corporation that would ruthlessly pursue the bottom line regardless of the human collateral damage that might occur along the way. Colleges and universities are people-focused organizations that have as their primary mission the betterment of individuals and thereby society. There must, however be some measures that can be taken to reign in soaring higher education costs.

What They Already Do?
There are few institutions that have the type of donation generated endowment to draw on in order to balance their books when it costs so much more to offer an education than they are able to charge for it. The solution that upper tier institutions rely on is soliciting donations from their alumni, parents, and friends of the institution. This is akin to begging for money which can be effective, but is also unpredictable, directly tied to the economic fortune of your prospective donors, and tends to alienate some of your supporters.

Every university does, however have a "Development Office," "Office of Annual Giving," or "Fundraising Department" whose job it is to continually solicit funding from prospective donors. In this way Smith-Parker’s institution was able to boost its endowment from $150,000,000 to over $350,000,000 in a few short years of very concentrated and aggressive fundraising. Every university does not have the alumni base to muster this sort of support. It is largely a function of the earning potential of graduates, and not all schools can produce alumni with the earning power to donate 200,000,000 over a few years. What else can they do?

Another way in which universities raise money is through applying for grants from the federal government and private organizations. These grants are tied to research and place an added burden on faculty both to write the grants, conduct the research, and sometimes, to administer the grants. Faculty members absolutely should be conducting research, that is one of the primary functions of a university, but they should not have to scramble for the money for that research at the expense of their teaching.

In addition to soliciting gifts and applying for grants, most colleges actively work to reduce their overhead costs and trim expenses wherever they can – growing their own food, relying on solar or wind power, limiting student laundry or printing, or requiring mandatory computer shutdowns in closed offices. So while the view from outside may seem to reveal a cushy job, the reality on the inside is that of a high-pressure position where hard decisions are made on a daily basis. Add to this the constant fear that the public perception of the system may lead to a decline in those wanting to attend an institution of higher education because of a perceived disconnect between cost and value of the education, and you have a very difficult situation.

Accepting Responsibility for Our Own Actions
I return to my statement at the outset of yesterday’s post, ". . . education, healthcare, and other public services are not "entitlements,"" in the current negative connotation of the term. In the spirit of the true meaning as mutually beneficial rights, we have a societal responsibility to ourselves and each other to support one another in providing for our basic needs. This is true for the provision of public services within our society. We are, after all, parts of the same whole. That said one way to reduce the cost of higher education is to support it better through tax dollars.

In order to make this increased public support a reality there are two things that need to happen first. One is to reverse the anti-intellectual political climate that has been festering in this country for years. Attacks on academia need to be debunked and turned around. The second is that people need to be made aware of the true value of a higher education as one vehicle for continued economic success, advances in social justice, improved public health, and our ability to innovate. A campaign advocating for universal higher education and its benefits is long overdue.


Image: Salvatore Vuono /