Five Ways to Spend Less on Higher Education

Published January 1, 2004

On October 21, 2003, the College Board once again documented the widespread impression that college costs are spiraling wildly out of control. In the decade from 1990 to 2000, tuition at the average four-year private college nearly doubled, going from $10,348 to $19,312. During that same period, state universities imposed an 85 percent tuition increase on their students.

In the current academic year, according to the Board, while the national economy has experienced almost no inflation, tuition at four-year private colleges is up 6 percent over 2002, while tuition at state schools has jumped an astonishing 14 percent in just one year.

While these trends suggest higher spending on higher education is inevitable, many experts say otherwise.

A 1998 report to Congress by the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education (NCCHE) concludes that a costly and unnecessary degree of specialization has developed in most academic departments, with institutions now supporting disciplines that did not even exist a generation or two ago. Were professors willing to shoulder a bit more of the teaching load, broadening slightly their focus, the number of positions needed to support a well-rounded curriculum would decline significantly with normal attrition; no faculty member would have to be let go or take a pay cut.

According to Martin Kramer, editor-in-chief of New Directions for Higher Education, even the modest reform of insuring that courses required for a major be offered on cycles that make completing college in four years more feasible–in other words, ranking students’ academic needs above sabbatical convenience–could significantly restrain college costs.

Another reform that promises significant savings is the more efficient use of online resources. Robert Zemsky, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, has observed that for a one-time collective investment of around $50 million, groups of community colleges, each now spending heavily to provide remedial programs in mathematics, could together save hundreds of millions of dollars “and quality could be continuously improved.”

Alan Guskin, president emeritus of Antioch University and co-director of the Project on the Future of Higher Education, believes a more creative approach to the design of libraries–using them as learning centers to provide online course instruction, not just as places to research the occasional class paper–would yield significant cost savings over the long run.

A third efficiency that could reduce the cost of attending a college or university is for schools to allocate educational costs to multi-layered tuitions. For example, courses using videotapes of the best professors from around the country, with an emphasis on independent study and only occasional classes with live teachers, could be priced at one low economy level, while courses involving expensive laboratory facilities or lengthy seminars with an ongoing instructor could be priced at an appropriate premium.

As colleges unbundled their offerings and prices, students in their turn could elect a base rate for courses with high levels of automation or, alternatively, pay a supplement for as much mentoring and personal attention as they wished.

William Massy, director of the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research, has a fourth suggestion: Professors should adopt quality control methods used in manufacturing and service industries. Just as cars are designed to accommodate the needs and limitations of the purchaser, so classes could be better designed to accommodate the interests and learning abilities of the students.

Supported by an $8.8 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trust, Carol A. Twigg at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute tested the viability of Massy’s suggestion by working with professors at 30 institutions of various sizes around the country. She wanted to see if fine-tuning the design of large enrollment courses could simultaneously reduce instructional costs while improving the quality of instruction.

“[Our] preliminary results show that all 30 [colleges and universities] reduced the costs of course delivery by 40 percent on average, with savings ranging from 20 to 86 percent,” says Twigg. At the same time, the redesigned courses produced “increased course-completion rates, improved retention, better student attitudes toward the subject matter, and increased student satisfaction.”

A final way in which college professors–especially the social scientists–could help reduce the cost of higher education is by using their expertise to identify alternatives to the current wasteful regulation of higher education. In 1998 Stanford University estimated the school incurred approximately $20 million per year (or 7.5 cents for every tuition dollar) in costs related to compliance with a maze of federal and local reporting rules.

Many state universities are further burdened by rigid finance laws, which require comptrollers to “sweep” college and university accounts at the end of each year, returning unspent balances to state treasuries. Such laws encourage schools to do everything but think economically and instead spend all their appropriated money in order to prove, if nothing else, that they are not over-funded.

Dr. Lewis Andrews is executive director of the Yankee Institute, a think tank based in Hartford, Connecticut. His email address is [email protected].