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A Cheaper Alternative to a Traditional College Education?

An academics-only education might not leave students drowning in debt -- but it’s not right for most students.

October 19, 2020
 
 

Dickinson College’s president emeritus William G. Durden recently explained how higher education could be reinvented to become more affordable. His answer: offer an academics-only education. Ditch the dorms. Discard dining services. Jettison student life staff and nonacademic ancillaries.

Voilà! Savings to pass on to students and parents.

Such a stripped-down approach already exists. It describes most community colleges, some city colleges, most online-only institutions and many European universities.

University extensions also offer this bare-bones approach. As my colleague Michael Rutter notes, it’s possible to get a B.A. from Harvard Extension, in-person, for $25,000 all in.

Durden goes on to argue that the benefits of an academic-only institution aren’t simply financial: “Faculty members might take larger roles in mentoring students in ways now reserved almost exclusively for student life staff.”

That strikes me as wishful thinking. As Rutter rightly observes, many faculty “lack the time, interest, and well, experience, to manage student life.”

Anyone who has attended or observed or taught in an academics-only European institution knows firsthand that it takes enormous determination to stay focused on academics. Attendance at lectures is intermittent, and the main social activity consists of going to pubs, cafés or bars.

As Michael remarks, this can “be a compelling experience … but again, not for everyone.”

We often hear that colleges are educational institutions -- mechanisms for transmitting knowledge and skills -- and ought not to be restaurants, hotels, health clubs, medical and mental health-care providers, and athletic centers, let alone providers of band camps and football camps.

So should we mimic the early Protestant reformers and strip away all the excrescences -- and cut costs to boot? And why not go further and follow the advice of Daniel M. Johnson in his critique of academic tradition, The Uncertain Future of American Public Higher Education, where he calls into question lifetime tenure in today’s fast-changing world, underutilized campuses, program duplication, presidential salaries and credit measured by seat time.

Let’s think twice before we heed this advice.

The American-style residential college experience is pretty unique -- and costly. But as the pandemic has underscored, it remains extraordinarily appealing, and not just to American adolescents. Describing the view at MIT, Rutter writes, “What do our students most miss? The physical campus. The classrooms. The dorms. The college life. Their clubs …”

Many facets of this experience are expensive, but they exist for a reason. The reason colleges build and run dorms, especially in expensive cities, is that otherwise students couldn’t afford to live on or near campus.

But let’s be careful about overgeneralizing. A residential experience is not the lot for most American undergraduates. Just prior to the pandemic, 86 percent of students did not live in university-owned housing, and 20 percent lived with their parents.

Let's also remember: students who attend commuter institutions have much lower graduation rates and longer time to degree than those who attend residential colleges and universities. This isn’t simply a matter of academic underpreparation. A big part of the explanation is that commuter students must multitask, and they find it much more difficult to focus on their studies.

There’s no doubt that higher education's standards of care have risen over time, driving up costs in the process. But even at resource-strapped urban colleges, learning centers and mental health support and even athletics aren’t frills; they’re necessities that help students stay motivated and on track.

We need to ask ourselves: Do we want an increasingly differentiated system of higher education -- in which the economically disadvantaged and a disproportionate share of students of color receive one kind of experience and their more affluent, whiter peers receive something quite different, or should our society do as much as we can to give all students something that resembles a liberal arts experience?

The disrupters, with their calls for cheaper, faster paths into the job market, will exacerbate the stratification of the post-high school educational experience.

There’s no doubt that many individuals currently don’t have the time or money for a traditional academic higher education. Some might, perhaps, be better served by more vocational or technical, career-focused training. However, the record of such programs is mixed, with low completion rates and doubtful job market outcomes.

There are ways to cut the cost of a college degree without seriously eroding academic quality or the college experience, for example, by expediting time to degree and reducing wasted credit hours. Many states do seem poised to increase access to early college/dual degree and AP courses and encouraging students to use those courses to fulfill their gen ed requirements.

We might also do more to facilitate the transition from a lower-cost community college to a four-year institution. States might require or incentivize four-year institutions to align their curricula with feeder schools and accept lower-division credits that are consistent with their own gen ed and major requirements.

More extensive adoption of cross-institutional course sharing might make sense, and the pandemic-fueled turn to online learning might make campuses more open to a course sharing approach, which has already taken root through the Council of Independent Colleges' Online Course Sharing Consortium and the Big Ten Academic Alliance. We might also make summer an integral part of the undergraduate experience, especially now that fewer young people work during summer breaks.

But let’s not undercut the value of a liberal education as some online institutions do -- disaggregating the faculty role, narrowing the curriculum, making extensive use of instructors and graders who lack subject-area expertise, and eliminating the co- and extracurricular activities that provide leadership training and hone interpersonal skills.

A major theme in the history of American higher education is democratization, as our society has given more and more individuals the opportunity to acquire an advanced liberal education. Let’s not retreat from that vision, but, rather, figure out how to ensure that as many students as possible receive a basic standard of quality:

  • Regular, substantive interaction with a subject-area specialist and scholars, except in those instances where the instructor should be a practitioner with a demonstrated level of expertise.
  • Access to laboratory science, instructor-guided foreign language instruction and a rich liberal arts curriculum.
  • Ensuring that all instructors, including adjuncts, be compensated for office hours, course development, direction of student projects, recommendation writing and other similar instructional responsibilities.

The pandemic has inflicted enough damage without cheapening and degrading the meaning of a college education.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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