Friday, September 04, 2009

Keeping Costs Low By Focusing on Teaching

by Daniel L. Bennett

I've been having some back and forth discussion with one our our most avid readers in the comments of a prior blog concerning one of higher education's truly laudable institutions, Lindenwood University in Missouri. I made the comment that more colleges should emulate Lindenwood's low-cost teaching university model that offers a private college education at a price comparable to public universities. This prompted the dialogue that followed. Rather than continue to discuss this topic in the comments of a blog that is bound to get buried, I decided to write a new blog so that the rest of our readers will have the opportunity to chime in.

To rehash and bring readers up to speed, I provided a back of the envelop comparison of the enrollment-, residence-, and institutional aid-adjusted tuition at Lindenwood and the University of Missouri at Columbia. The result of this calculation was that the average student in 2007 at Lindenwood was responsible for coming up with ~$6,575, whereas the average student at UMC was responsible for coming up with ~$6,350 to cover the remaining tuition. Because there was concern that I had mistaken total financial aid package (including grants, loans work study) for institutional aid, I've included the chart* below that shows the percentage of students receiving and the average amount received at the two schools, by aid type. Please note that the above mentioned calculations only consider institutional grant aid that is provided by the school itself and not aid received from the government.

I also previously pointed out that Lindenwood is able to keep its costs under control with sensible policies such as, but not limited to:

1) having a single institutional mission: teaching
2) faculty focus on teaching and counseling, as opposed to research
3) use of long-term renewable faculty contracts instead of tenure
4) use of academic divisions (headed by a faculty member with teaching duties) as opposed to a plethora of individual departments
5) minimal bureaucracy

A concern was then raised that Lindenwood is able to offer relatively low tuition because many of its students major in business, education, communication and other "low cost" disciplines. I really don't see how this is a bad thing. If Lindenwood attracts students who are interested in careers in the above-mentioned fields, which also happen to be in demand by the labor market, then the university is doing itself a favor by specializing in fields that are in high demand, rather than trying to appease every Tom, Dick and Sally by offering a full menu of low-demand majors. It is also beneficial to graduates who are more likely to find employment in their field of study. And not having a tenure system, Lindenwood has the capability to shift its educational offerings in sync with labor market and student demands, making it more capable to adjust its programs to match the needs of a dynamic global economy.

Lindenwood faculty have higher teaching loads than faculty at most colleges, but are not held to the publish or perish research standard that has become the focus of many colleges and universities. I also see this as a good thing because it permits faculty to focus on engaging their students as well as helping keep costs down. Why? Because research is expensive and shifts faculty resources away from other activities, such as teaching and student counseling. These tasks still need to be performed, so the college hires additional staff to handle jobs previously performed by faculty, but who are not primarily engaged in research. This has been one of the primary drivers of upward spiraling tuition. While I believe that some research contributes to the advancement of society (e.g. engineering, sciences, medical, etc), I suspect that much of what is being published in obscure academic journals contributes little to society other than the intellectual stimulation of relatively few professors in highly specialized disciplines.

Promoting such research via diverting resources away from teaching will prove to be the downfall of the university as a great American institution. Students, parents, donors and taxpayers are expending exorbitant amounts of money to educate the citizenry of this nation in an effort to preserve our nation's prosperity and improve the lives of its citizens, but I'm afraid that many of these resources are being wasted, as colleges have become less and less focused on providing an education. The students and future generations are the losers in this game, as they incur large amounts of both personal and public debt that will need to be paid for at some point down the road. Meanwhile, graduates will be unequipped to compete in the global economy due to a higher education system that pawned off the responsibility of educating them in favor of pursuing a whole lot of self-interested research (which the majority of undergraduates are not involved in) that for the most part, doesn't matter. The focus of colleges instead, needs to return to educating the students and helping them succeed in life, and Lindenwood (as well as a few other colleges) appears to have embraced this concept. I would hope that many more colleges would emulate the low-cost teaching model, which could be the saving grace of American higher education and this country's economic future.

*Data Source: IPEDS

1 comment:

capeman said...

It's hard for me to verify the finances of Lindenwood. The College Board data re the size of grant aid differ from the IPEDS data. In the U.S. News annual rankings, Lindenwood does not come out among the top schools in low student debt load, or net (after scholarship grant aid) costs.

But let's grant that Lindenwood is a low-cost school. It's not one that I would want to go to if I were a good student. They have pretty low ACT scores -- much lower than the University of Missouri.

On the U.S. News "peer assessment" (aka "academic reputation) part of their rankings, Lindenwood comes in at 1.9 in the latest round -- having been at 2.1 in 2003. (These figures are as I recall; I don't have the U.S. News editions in front of me.) They are listed as fourth-tier among "Master's universities". The biggest component of that is the peer assessment score. You might scoff at the U.S. News rankings. But is Lindenwood in the Forbes rankings for comparison? I don't know.

There's a lot of interesting stuff on the web about Lindenwood and student satisfaction, connoisseurs can find it for themselves.

Finally, their rate of alumni giving (again, as reported in U.S. News) is 4 or 5% in the latest year, I don't have the exact figure in front of me but I looked at it this weekend. Again, down from 2003, when it was 7%. A miserable rate for private colleges, much lower than most public colleges, including Missouri. Not a great vote of confidence by their alumni, it seems.

I don't especially like to knock Lindenwood, or most any other school; I'm sure they do well for a lot of students.

But holding them up as a model for how higher education should be done strikes me as ludicrous.

Especially, coming from an outfit that is populated mainly by denizens of public universities, with a few high-priced private schools thrown in!

When the Doc starts hiring Lindenwood graduates, then I'll be impressed.