The world still comes to the United States for higher education. Our elite institutions are the best in the world. Historically, we have done a better job of providing quality education to tens of millions of people than almost any other country on earth.
Yet we’re slipping. Simply put, our graduation rates are too low, our costs are too high, and too many students are slipping through the cracks. Reformers -- and universities themselves -- grasp these realities and want wholesale changes that will fundamentally alter how we think about higher education.
Those long-term battles are important, even necessary. New innovations in distance learning and nontraditional degrees may provide new pathways for students. But such changes may take decades. In the meantime, we have millions of college students taking on ever-higher debt loads for a long, winding road to a degree. We need to make immediate changes to affirmatively lower costs – not just “increase affordability” – while we raise graduation rates. We need to work within the existing framework to do what we’re already doing, but do it better and cheaper.
The good news is we have proven methods to improve our efficiency and outcomes at our postsecondary institutions.
Take student costs. Conventional wisdom focuses on high tuition costs, but there’s a related problem that’s often overlooked. Graduating from college takes most students five or even six years, while they are planning for four. That ends up an extra 25 to 50 percent in tuition costs alone, not to mention college-related fees and the opportunity cost of not working.
Institutions can directly reduce time to degree. Recent data show that “bottleneck courses,” i.e., courses where student demand outstrips available seats, play a big role in delaying degree completion.
To put it in human terms, a student who needs Biology 201 to graduate – when a seat in Biology 201 isn’t available until next year – is wasting time and money. That dynamic is why “access to courses” consistently ranks as the biggest student complaint about higher education, according to the Noel-Levitz annual student satisfaction survey  (subscription required).
The fix is relatively straightforward: offer those bottleneck courses more often. Just 5 to 10 percent of courses are responsible for the vast majority of bottlenecks, so colleges and universities can address the shortages quickly. For instance, they can ensure that their most valuable resources -- professors -- are teaching the right mix of courses to prevent bottlenecks, rather than spending limited resources on course offerings that are not needed (15-20 percent of a typical school’s schedule). Similarly, colleges can better align schedules so students don’t have to choose between two required courses, and can make sure room size is aligned to corresponding course demand.
“Quickly” is the key concept in this fix – we can save students hundreds of millions of dollars every year starting immediately. We don’t need to wait a decade, or even a year.
Addressing bottleneck courses is one of the clearest examples of changes we can make to address the problems in higher education immediately, but it is far from the only one. The two below, for instance, lead to real savings right away, but are easy to overlook:
- Extensive data show that better allocation of academic space – i.e., which courses are scheduled in which classrooms at which times – is an overlooked yet vital cost issue. Better allocation of classroom resources – identifying and addressing primetime bottlenecks by focusing on room ownership, meeting pattern efficiency and last-minute cancellation, etc. – can postpone or even cancel entire expensive classroom construction projects. (Full disclosure: Ad Astra Information Systems, where Tom Shaver serves as CEO, are providing university leaders with data-based solutions that help them make these important resource allocation decisions.)
- College bookstores can adopt software enabling students to take advantage of economies of scale and get their expensive textbooks for vastly reduced costs (One of us wrote an op-ed  on this subject in The Hill).
There are, of course, hundreds of other solutions we can adopt right away. These solutions represent just a few ideas that directly address the nuts and bolts of providing courses to thousands of students on a single campus. These solutions aren’t glamorous. They’ll never make the front page of The New York Times or be the subject of a TED talk.
Yet they are key operational concerns that save real money. One large community college in the Northeast better aligned its faculty and classroom resources to offer more of the most oversubscribed courses, allowing it to enroll hundreds more students without committing new funding. All told, it improved its balance sheet by over $1.7 million in a single year. A community college system in the Midwest took a similar approach and has improved its fiscal outlook by almost $3 million in just three years. Multiply those figures by the approximately 3,000 institutions of higher education in this country, and you are looking at tremendous savings for students – and for institutions.
Will these changes singlehandedly fix the deep-seated and complicated fiscal issues afflicting our higher education system? Probably not. But can these solutions -- and others like them -- vastly improve the higher education experience for both students and institutions? There is no question they can.
In an era defined by a $16 trillion federal debt and states across the country struggling with multibillion-dollar shortfalls, we are going to see an unfortunate but inevitable reduction in government funding for higher education. Colleges are facing this reality today. They cannot afford to wait for next-generation solutions. They need this-generation solutions. Millions of students’ futures depend on it.
Gene Hickok is the former deputy U.S. secretary of education and a senior adviser at Whiteboard Advisors; Tom Shaver is CEO of Ad Astra Information Systems, a company using data mining technology to help colleges and universities improve student access and lower costs.