Lowering the Cost of Higher Education

by Staff Writers

Maybe we've been going about this college cost issue the wrong way. It is called "higher" education after all. Maybe all we need is a name change to "affordable education," or even "lower education?" Regardless of the name we give it, the cost/affordability/equitability discussion surrounding higher education isn't going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the debate is intensifying on a daily basis. In the State of the Union Address last month, President Obama called out higher education, threatening universities with a loss of federal financial aid if they don't make their product more affordable, and thus, more universally accessible.

A recent NPR On Point discussion about the high cost of higher education featuring Henry Eyring, Advancement Vice President at BYU-Idaho, author of The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, Jeff Selingo, editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University system of New York, the largest higher education system in the country, explored several innovative solutions to curbing the cost of higher education while making it accessible to all. Here's how they think it can be done.

Why Are Costs Rising?
The first step in solving a problem is to determine the causes behind it. Eyring and Zimpher agreed that a major source of the rising cost of higher education is an institutional identity crisis among most of the colleges and universities in this country. This crisis has two root causes: trying to emulate Harvard, and trying to emulate research universities.
There is no doubt that Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton educations help with the lifetime employability and earning capacity of those who can afford to attend and are lucky enough to gain entry. The panelists cite the widespread idea that any or all colleges can provide the same sort of benefits to their graduates as one of the major culprits contributing to the cost of higher education. In fact, only a select few institutions offer the kind of global brand recognition that really benefits their graduates. Most of them do not, but still attempt to follow the model of these elite institutions and feel justified in charging the same level of tuition – though they are charging it for an education that ultimately does not have the same value in the global marketplace or even nationally.

The second cause of escalating costs is the belief of most universities that, in order to be a "good" school, the faculty must be engaged in research. However, the costs of conducting research are very high – decreased classroom time means hiring more faculty or adjuncts to cover classes and, if external funding is not available, universities are often paying the bills for the research itself -out of tuition dollars.

Because of these two root causes, costs have steadily climbed throughout the higher education sector. Add to these the concept of "creeping functionality" – the idea that programmatic offerings and on-campus amenities must continually grow and improve in order to satisfy customers ever-increasing expectations – and you have a recipe for a vicious cycle of increasing costs and tuition hikes to support them.

Innovative Solutions to Curbing or Reducing Rising Costs
The two panelists generated a veritable laundry list of changes that their own institutions have already implemented as well as other possible solutions for cutting costs that were simultaneously pragmatic and innovative.

  • Systemic Thinking/Cost Sharing – The idea that universities, particularly those that are already a part of a state system, should be pooling their resources to increase their buying power for procurement and should share resources between campuses whenever possible.
  • Image Control – The elite research university image of all schools needs to change to more accurately reflect the strengths of different types of institutions. The big R1 giants should be the main hubs of research while other, smaller schools focus on teaching undergraduates.
  •  Mission Control – Institutions of all types need to carefully examine what they do well. In particular, attention needs to be devoted to determining what types of programs are needed and how technology can be used to help do the things that they do well, less expensively.
  • Top-down Control – According Zimpher, independently governed universities have a tendency to expand both in terms of their mission and their administration. State-level governing bodies can help curb that creeping functionality and administrative bloat.
  • Use Technology – New technology needs to be employed that allows for lowering operating costs while maintaining quality. This means a focus on taking the best portions of a campus-based education and augmenting it with online options to provide the best and most affordable education possible.
  • Tuition Increase Plan – The New York state educational system has a "rational tuition" plan based on fair (modest) increases over time. These increases are predictable so students can plan for their entire career (5 year tuition plan with a cap agreement so schools won't raise tuition beyond a certain level and states won't cut funding) New York universities also agree that the first dollar of any tuition increase goes to closing the gap for any student fully accessing Pell grants, or other tuition assistance programs.
  • Rethink the Academic Year – BYU-Idaho has implemented a year-round hybrid program which employs a three semester school year. This plan accelerates the pace of education, and reduces overhead costs, tuition, and benefits.
  • Reduce Administrative Bloat – One suggestion is for adjacent campuses to share administrative staff, including presidents and other highly paid professional staff.
  • Private Sector Partnerships – Implementing a formal plan to connect students with paid internships during college helps reduce their costs for attending a university and helps them graduate with a job already lined up. In addition to this, a careful examination of the on-campus programs available and how they align with the jobs that exist in a state is necessary. This allows for a closer match of program offerings to the private sector needs in the state. Essentially, schools need to do a better job of manage the portfolio of programs that they offer so that they match the real needs of the private sector.
  • Reduce Remediation – Students entering a university before they are prepared represent a substantial cost to the system and to the students themselves. Initiatives which help align K-12 education with collegiate expectations can address shortcomings before students hit campus.
  • Increase Graduation Rates – A lack of preparation for college often leads to a failure to graduate. In that case, students leave the institution without a degree, but still with debt. An overall focus on increasing completion rates allows students to gain the benefits for which they are paying.
  • Eliminate Intercollegiate Athletics – BYU-Idaho eliminated their intercollegiate athletics programs and instituted an ambitious intramural program which costs 1/3 the price and involves a much larger percentage of students.
  • Lower Expectations – Students need to have more realistic expectations of what a college education looks like. This could include shortening the duration of a residential experience, taking more online classes, or participating in an integrated 2/2/2/ program where two years of high school, two years of community college, and two years at a residential college fit together seamlessly to provide a focused higher education experience.
  • Student Responsibility – The final initiative in lowering the costs (and debt burden) of higher education needs to fall on students and their families who need to be realistic about choosing an education that matches their budget, goals and potential earning power. They also need to be more responsible about taking on loans to cover the ancillary costs of education.

The Final Question
These proposals are ambitions and forward thinking, but will they be implemented quickly enough to avert an impending higher education crisis? Both Eyring and Zimpher agree that these changes are already happening in isolated pockets of the higher education landscape, and they are confident that they are going to happen universally. According to the panelists, the last several months have brought about exiting developments in online learning such as the free Stanford University computer science classes and the Khan Academy. These developments and impending cost cutting measures, may be the start of a Renaissance in higher education. In addition, they were confident that the student loan system is likely to change rapidly so that it is more aligned with students' actual ability to repay loans after graduation.

Zimpher believes that universities need to set aggressive goals and focus more closely on their core mission of teaching and learning, saying, "We will come out of this recession tighter, smarter, and more focused. . . . Universities and education are still the answer."


Image: Pixomar /