Liberal Arts Education for $10,000 Per Year?

Is it possible?

October 24, 2018

There is universal agreement that college costs too much. Currently, an elite liberal arts education costs an average of $68,000 per year. This has two major negative consequences. First, the price tag puts this education out of the grasp of the vast majority of American high school seniors, even with significant financial aid discounts.  And second, it forces all but a tiny number of very well-endowed colleges and universities to accept and enroll a disproportionate percentage of students from the very wealthiest families.  Many elite liberal arts colleges enroll at least 40% of their students from the top 3% of wealthy families, as these full-paying students are essential to the business model.  As a result, our higher educational system is propping up class privilege, not challenging it. 

Unfortunately, there is virtually no agreement on how to address this problem.  Indeed, there are very few potential solutions on the table.  Colleges and universities have proved incapable of slowing, let alone reversing, tuition growth, which continues to rise faster than inflation, as it has since the 1920s.  Even if schools could cost costs by 10% -- a goal most administrators believe is impossible – tuition would still be way too high.  Technology has not come to the rescue.  Massive open on-line courses, for example, have largely fizzled, as administrators learned what educators already knew: a good education is a conversation, not content delivery.  So where do we go from here?

What the world really needs is world-class liberal arts education for $10,000 per year, in order to expand access to college and dramatically increase the number of well-trained liberal arts graduates in the country.  Is that ambitious goal possible?  I decided to find out by conducting a thought experiment. 

I started with the example of Reed College, where I served as president for the past six years.  Reed, like most of its peer institutions, currently charges over $70,000 for tuition, room, board and fees.  For that price, it delivers a very powerful liberal arts education, with almost 20% of its graduates going on the gain doctoral degrees.  I admire the Reed education immensely.  What if we reverse-engineered that elite liberal arts college business model to eliminate all but essential costs related to educational quality?  How low could we drive tuition? 

Our new college would offer a core liberal arts education in fields like math, theoretical physics, English, history, psychology, economics, and anthropology, but we would offer no experimental sciences that require labs, so teaching space could be shared, generic, and low cost.  We would employ very small classes, with a 10:1 student faculty ratio when needed -- to teach writing, for instance -- but large classes where appropriate, in courses like intro economics.  This new college would not own any property or buildings: we would rent or, if possible, rely on donated space from major corporations wanting to offer this education to their employees.  The campus would consist of nothing but classrooms and a common meeting area, and unlike virtually all current colleges and universities, it would use that space efficiently, from 8 am to 9 pm, seven days a week, with night classes for people who work.  There would be no library.  The school would provide access to on-line research databases instead.  Students would conduct research from their personal computers and use the public library system for hard to obtain materials.  There would be no computer labs, no faculty offices, no food service, no sports facilities.  This would allow a massive reduction in required square footage.

Unlike most elite liberal arts campuses, which are located in rural areas, our college would be located in an urban area, allowing students to live with their families.  This would allow us to eliminate all on-campus housing.  That means no dorm construction costs, no dorm cleaning costs, no maintenance, no residence life staff, and a dramatically reduced campus safety force.

We would dramatically cut labor costs in two ways.  First, we would eliminate all possible non-academic auxiliary services: no fund-raising staff, no alumni relations staff, no career services staff, no health services, minimal students affairs support.   There would be no complex application to assess.  The college would be open, first come, first serve, to anyone with a 1100 math and reading SAT and a high school diploma or GED.  As a result, the admission office could be tiny, and, given the SAT cut-off point, we would not need to offer remedial, high-school level courses.

To cut faculty costs, we would take advantage of a current inefficiency in the higher education teaching market.  Right now, there are only two types of professors: tenure track faculty, who are adequately (though not generously) paid but expected to do research as well as teach, and very poorly paid adjuncts, who have high teaching loads and get less than a living wage, typically without benefits.  We would exploit this inefficiency, offering faculty less compensation than faculty at traditional elite schools, but way more than adjuncts, plus health benefits.  Given the Ph.d labor market, and the large number of talented persons leaving academia, we could hire very smart faculty, with good Ph.Ds, on these terms.  Our faculty would teach three courses per semester, more than at an elite university, but less than at many non-elite schools.  In return, they would not be expected to conduct research or publish.  Teachers would be assessed on the basis of student teaching evaluations: only excellent teachers would be entitled to higher compensation over time.  We would employ technology and free instructional materials in areas like language instruction to cut costs as much as possible.  

We would also make structural changes to the traditional college business model to make it more efficient.  Students would attend college year-round, allowing them to finish in less than three years, not four, cutting their total cost to less than $30,000.  Because the college would operate throughout the year, we would avoid a major drawback of the traditional model, in which colleges generate revenue only nine months of the year to cover twelve months of fixed costs.   We would also exploit economies of scale.  We might run ten campuses, all in major cities, with one central administration, one balance sheet, and one admission and financial aid staff, cutting administrative costs dramatically. 

The result of all these efficiencies?  Using rough preliminary space and salary cost estimates, and an enrollment target of 1000 students, the model pencils at $10,000 tuition per year.  This cost would be affordable for middle class families. It would also be available to poor students with no assets, because the entire amount could be covered by a Pell grant and government loan.  The college would provide no financial aid, but would provide a small staff to administer government PELL grants and student loans for those students qualifying for financial assistance. 

Using this model, our new college could offer something total unavailable today: a strong liberal arts education, with high quality teaching and intellectual skills development, at a fraction of the cost of traditional education.  We would lose some of the benefits of the traditional residential liberal arts model, particularly in the experimental sciences, but the gains might be immense.  

What do you think?  Is this model unrealistic?  I welcome your thoughts.       

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John Kroger

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