The 10K Per Year Liberal Arts Education as Thought Experiment

How would you make this work?

October 25, 2018

John Kroger’s piece, Liberal Arts Education for $10,000 Per Year? has given us all something to think about.

The question isn’t if this is a good idea or not. There is no need to criticize Kroger’s vision unless there emerges some reasonable path to reality.

As John Doerr once said, “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” From what I can tell, Kroger is spitballing.

Not that there is anything wrong with that.  As George E. P. Box tells us, "All models are wrong; some models are useful.”

The question is if a $10K per year liberal arts education is a useful model in our work to make our institutions better, cheaper or both?

What I find useful in Kroger’s construction is just how much would need to be stripped away.

In Kroger’s 10K per year model, there is no library, no student affairs, no computer labs, no food service, no faculty offices, and no sports facilities. There are no health services, no career services, no alumni or fundraising staff.  Admissions are based on test scores, so very few admissions people. There are no dorms. No faculty research.

There is only teaching, assessing, and credentialing.

Kroger compares his barebones $10K per year model with private liberal arts schools that charge $70K per year. A more useful comparison, as many of the comments to his piece pointed out, would have been to a community college or an extension school.

Kroger claims he can run his institution with a 10:1 student-faculty ratio for some courses, and with large lecture classes for other subjects.

I’m having trouble seeing how the math works.

Public and private 4-year institutions spend about a third of revenues on instructional costs. 

Looking at only private 4-year non-profits, the next biggest spending category after instructional costs are academic support and student services at 17%, institutional support at 13%, research at around 10%, and then everything else.

The biggest expense at every college or university is salaries and wages.  Higher education is a labor-intensive business. Compensation costs when benefits are folded in can account for over half of all spending. Library and IT spending make up a surprisingly small percentage of expenditures.

The point of all this is to recognize that colleges and universities are expensive places to run. You will not get to a $10K a year school by cutting the library and IT.

In the real world, I don’t see how to spend close to every dollar only on instructional costs - as much as I’d like that to be the reality.

What am I missing?

Maybe we could ask John Kroger to share a more detailed budget.

We may never get to a traditional residential education at $10K per year (except community colleges), but this does not mean that this sort of thought experiment is without value.

If nothing else, Kroger (and all the comments to his piece) have got us thinking.

How would you construct your $10K per year liberal arts college?

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Joshua Kim

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