Like Fontana Labs, I’ve long fretted that some day, all at once, in a tipping point reaction, both employers and families are going to decide in two different directions that expensive college degrees no longer predict success strongly and are not worth pursuing regardless of whatever usefulness they may or may not have.
There are reasons why that might not happen. For one, I think many colleges and universities are educating their students productively. The sky might not be falling so much as some people think it is. For another, the more highly selective a college or university is in its admission policies, the more useful it is for an employer as a device for identifying potentially valuable employees, even if the employer doesn’t know or care what happened to the potential employee while he or she was a student. If so, this has bad implications for expensive noncompetitive lower-tier private colleges, possibly, but since they’ve long since been the most economically tenuous part of the higher education sector, that’s not news. Also, it’s fairly hard to imagine what employers with relatively high turnover and thus a need for constantly refreshing their supply of lower-management employees would do to process their applicant pools if they didn’t have a B.A. degree as a basic screening device. Finally, the fact that public schools are becoming much more expensive in a way benefits the entire higher education sector in terms of its ability to sustain high prices for the long-term future. It used to be that you could get an education at some of the major public universities that rivalled most major private universities and at a much cheaper price. That’s increasingly no longer the case, so anybody who is fed up with the cost really has nowhere to turn besides not doing it at all.
Let’s suppose, however, that there is a tipping point out there somewhere, that higher education is moving towards a collective calamity in its pricing. What would it take for colleges and universities to start reducing their costs and lowering the price? For one, many institutions would have to do it at the same time. That’s because lowering the price is going to involve shucking off at least some of the product being made available. Doing that unilaterally is likely to be suicidal, especially among the top-end institutions. How to coordinate that movement without running afoul of antitrust collusion is a big issue in its own right.
The important thing is that parents and other observers have to understand that the high cost is in fact buying a wide range of services. Anybody who thinks you can shave the cost appreciably with little gestures of economy doesn’t understand the basic structure of academic budgets. Moreover, some of the most powerful external costs driving up academic budgets cannot be affected appreciably by colleges and universities acting on their own, but only by some larger public policy. Insurance, for example, or the costs of health care. The only thing universities could do on either of those is reduce the amount of insurance they carry or their benefits, and in many cases, those benefits already compare unfavorably to both the private sector and even to other non-profits. In other cases, costs could be controlled by universities, for example, in libraries, but only by changing the nature of academic publishing and academic credentialling, which will require faculties to participate in major reform initiatives.
What could a given university do that would not require collective action of this kind? Here I’ll cannibalize some of my observations from 21st Century College. A college or university could stop providing services of various kinds. For example, no health care for undergraduates. No counseling or help with student life issues. No athletic facilities or student life facilities. Minimalist classrooms, with minimal technological support save that which is paid for by external grants or support. Subcontract out all food services and other amenities to the highest bidders; manage nothing of this kind directly. Shed any services which do not relate to core instruction. Build only when buildings are about to literally fall apart; build nothing else unless it is completely paid for by external funding including a maintenance endowment.
You could radically intervene in the curriculum to throw overboard areas which do not pay for themselves through external grants, or which have low enrollments. You could make extensive use of adjunct or contract faculty (an already preferred solution, and thus unlikely to produce even more extensive savings.)
In fact, quite a bit of this on the curricular side is already being done at many institutions, and is the source of some complaints about the “corporatization” of universities. On the services side, however, there is largely still only growth and expansion. However, that’s in substantial measure because that’s what the paying customers want. A cheaper university sounds great until you add that it would also be a no-frills university with virtually no services, and then I suspect quite a few parents and students might feel differently. Moreover, such a university would undoubtedly be massively exposed to liability as well as discord: many of the services added in the last fifteen years are direct responses to lawsuits or agitation by students and other constituents.
The cost of higher education worries me enormously. It appears unsustainable as well as unjust. It is aggravating a problem that is somewhat separate in its causal underpinnings, the increasing degree to which universities are exacerbating the reduction of economic and social mobility in the United States. But I’m not sure what to do about it. I think at the least that some of the people most aggravated about it are going to need to get real about what it is that they’re asking for: curricula that are pared down radically to what external funders judge valuable and thus heavily biased to technical subjects with immediate professional payoffs, and institutions with few if any meaningful services beyond education. It would be interesting, at any rate, to see an institution of higher learning built on those principles start up in this marketplace, at least one that wasn’t built around online education, and see how it fares (and just how low it could get tuition).