Tuesday, October 10, 2006

How Costly Does Higher Education Need to Be?

By Richard Vedder

I have had a couple of pleasant phone conversations recently with Vance Fried, the Brattain Professor of Management at Oklahoma State University, over the issue of university costs. We have discussed the question: how much does it really cost to offer a quality education at a four year institution? Both of us think that the amount is a lot less than most universities currently spend, and that many of the affordability/access questions would largely disappear if we organized universities efficiently, with cost containment a paramount objective, not merely an after thought to which we pay some trivial rhetorical homage.

On occasion, I ask myself: if I was designing Low Cost U from the beginning, with the objective of offering a quality 4 year education, but with few bells or whistles (or climbing walls or Jacuzzis), how much would it cost society per student attending? The answer is probably less than $10,000 a year, perhaps a good deal less. How would I do it?

1) Faculty would be reasonably well compensated, but would teach high teaching loads --maybe 12 hours per week using a semester system, possibly even 15 hours weekly.

2)Elective course offerings that are today taught mainly because the professor wants to and not because of a crying educational need would be drastically curtailed. College course offerings in total would be reduced at least 50 percent from the conventional levels today.

3) Clean but utilitarian buildings would be utilized to the hilt, and instruction would be on-going throughout the year. Perhaps lower tuition fees would be offered for courses taught in the summer or at unpopular times, such as 8:00 a.m. or on Fridays or in the evening.

4) The University would stay out of ancillary businesses about which they have no particular expertise, such as housing and feeding students or running quasi-professional athletic teams that have effectively become the minor leagues for professional sports.

5) Where possible, cost-effective distance learning would be encouraged, such as Internet instruction.

6) Administrative staffs would be lean. Some academic-related student services would be provided, such as placement services, but a huge bureaucracy to administer to student needs would be avoided.

In some ways, I have defined the modern for-profit institution that tries to minimize costs in order to maximize profits. So be it. The problem is that there are few incentives for current not-for-profit institutions to morph into Low Cost U. Perhaps those incentives could be created, likely rewarding academic entrepreneurs on cost containment, or on having a high "value added" (learning) to cost ratio. New ventures like Western Governors University have some promise, but no states seem to be showing any interest in starting Low Cost U. Perhaps some should.

Low Cost U is not ideal for everyone. Many students, particularly from relatively affluent homes, want to buy the "socialization" or consumption dimension of higher education. Graduate and professional education requires a different model for the most part. Campus-wide lecture series, concerts, and even athletic events add to the joy of going to college and often have some educational value as well, but they add to costs. You probably cannot have a champagne education on a beer budget, but we can offer a reasonably high quality academic program at much lower prices than today -- if we put our mind to it. I have asked Professor Fried to share with me his thoughts on this, and, with his permission, my sidekick Bryan and I will post them in this space at a future date.

11 comments:

Suzi said...

I've taught at two colleges where 12 hours a week is normal for teaching loads.

Purdue University had Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday classes from 8-12. (Couldn't have it later because of football.) So I'm not really sure why Friday should cost less.

Also a no-frills education on the cheap would be great for non-traditional students, and they're the ones who take the evening classes. So again I'm not sure that's necessary.

But I like the ideas.

Frank said...

4) The University would stay out of ancillary businesses about which they have no particular expertise, such as housing and feeding students or running quasi-professional athletic teams that have effectively become the minor leagues for professional sports.

Dr. Vedder, these are the comments that defeat your logic. How can one argue that a university that is 100 years old, and has been providing housing and meals for that entire time, has no particular expertise? I've worked in enough IHEs to know that they do hire people with such expertise, and many institutions have outsourced some, most, or all these functions.

As far as the athletics issue, you need to take on the NCAA. Last year, when the NCAA announced that leaving college for a professional team counted as a college completion in the new graduation rate, I heard nothing from you or the Commission back then.

TC said...
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superhiker said...

A couple of "pleasant conversations" with Vance Fried, the Brattain Professor of Management at Oklahoma State University, eh? I wonder how much this cost the good taxpayers of Oklahoma?

TC said...
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superhiker said...

Cowboy, if you think someone spending 12 hours per week in the classroom is only working 12 hours, then you are nuts. Try teaching the natural science class that I am preparing right now. For that matter, try taking the class. You will soon learn.

superhiker said...

What is described in this article actually sounds like a community college + last two years at a low-cost public university. It is already available. What is the big deal?

TC said...
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Jim said...

Cowboy, I went did the patent search and that doesn't prove anything. How can you say that is your patent? There is two peoples names on the patent. Can you prove it - I doubt it. And what are you trying to prove anyway?

superhiker said...

She said her "teaching load" is 12 hrs/week. Perhaps that's not clear, but it doesn't mean she is saying she works only 12 hrs/week.

So I'll translate, "12 hr teaching load" is U.-speak for "12 hr/wk in front of the class".

Add in class preparation time, office hours, exam preparation, grading, committee meetings (where applicable). You end up with a multiple of the class time, even if you've taught the class a dozen times.

If not -- if it's a class you've never taught -- 4 hrs can easily turn into 20 hrs or more. Easily!

Also, it doesn't include things like research, grant proposal preparation, etc etc where applicable.

If you were applying for a job at any decent college or university, or even at a lot of not-so-decent ones, and you came in with the attitude that it was a soft job, or that you were only going to work 12 hrs/wk, you'd get laughed out before you even got in the door.

Since you seem to know something about chemistry, judging from your patent, you also probably know, if you've ever taken a chemistry course, that to do a decent job as a student, it takes more than just showing up for 4 hrs week.

Same with teaching the course, except the latter takes a lot more time than taking it.

TC said...
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