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Where Jeff Selingo Is Wrong About College Costs

Graduation rates, quality, and technology.

May 30, 2017
 
 

“...rather than always looking at the revenue side of the ledger by figuring out how to attract more students with marketing gimmicks and constant discounting, colleges should start studying the expense side as well for ways to lower their costs".

From Forget the Marketing Gimmicks: It’s Time for Colleges to Cut Costs by Jeff Selingo, 5/26/17 Washington Post.

Jeff Selingo is not wrong about the need for colleges to look not only at revenues, but costs as well. Right?

After all, who could argue that the amenities arms race (fancy dorms, lazy rivers etc.) and low-levels of classroom utilization are driving college costs to unaffordable levels? 

Well…I’ll argue with Jeff.  

And full disclosure, I consider Jeff Selingo to be among our most important higher ed voices - and also just a great guy.

The first problem I have with Jeff’s argument is that he focuses only on costs, and not on value.

Yes, college costs are too high - and student debt levels crippling - but this is true mostly for those who start but don’t finish college.

A college graduate with a bachelor's degree has an average lifetime earnings of $700,000 more than someone who started college but did not finish.  Advanced degree holders (for which you first need a bachelors) will earn more than a million dollars more over their lifetime.

That $700,000 (and $1 million) figure tells me that real problem with colleges is not costs, but graduation rates. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the 6 year graduation rate from first institution attended for first-time, full-time bachelor's degree-seeking students at 4-year postsecondary institutions is only 59 percent.  

Students at private, non-profit schools do much better - with 6 year graduation rates at 66 percent.  

The more selective the institution, the more likely a student is to graduate.  At colleges that accept 25 percent or less of students, fully 88 percent will graduate within 6 years.  From 25 to 49 percent the six year graduate rate falls to 70 percent, and at 50 to 74.9 percent the graduate rate is 62 percent.  

Given these numbers on lifetime earnings and graduation rates, it seems that those of us that are concerned about higher education should focus quality as much as costs.

In Jeff’s article, he suggests that colleges could rein in costs (really prices) by addressing instructional costs.  In particular, Jeff suggests that technology may be helpful in improving postsecondary productivity.  He writes:

"While not the panacea that many in Silicon Valley suggest, technology can reduce instructional costs with the same or even better results.”

In my experience, however, introducing technology into education seldom (if ever) reduces costs. 

Technology in education is best used as a complement to educators doing the hard work of teaching.  

What technology can do, I believe, is to help address issues that lead to students failing to finish their degrees.

We can use methods of blended and personalized education, including online learning and flipped classrooms, to enable faculty to provide individual mentoring and coaching to students.  We should be able to use learning analytics to identify at risk students before they drop out, and then to target assistance and resources in order to get our students to the graduation finish line.

Should college look to control costs?  Sure.  But the real challenge is post secondary productivity.   The real challenge is avoiding paying all that money, only to drop out before getting the degree. 

It would be a bad bargain for all of our students if cost cutting came at the expense of lowering graduation rates.

How would you argue with, or defend, Jeff on college costs?

Can you see a way to reduce costs (really prices), while simultaneously improving quality and graduation rates?

 

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