Your “frill” is not my “frill. “ My frill, in fact, is an essential component of the work I do, which is an equally essential aspect of our institution’s mission. Maybe you say the same about yours.
And therein lies the heart of the difficulty in discussing what has recently become a phrase bandied about in the world of higher education. “No-frills education” has been touted by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, the president of Southern New Hampshire University in recent attention-getting interviews, and pundits commenting on the out-of-control costs of college. If we can just strip the college experience down to its most basic form, the argument goes, we can restore sanity to the price structure and access to those who need it.
But the first challenge comes when we begin to discuss, and decide on, what constitutes a “frill.” Unfortunately, the contentious and fractured nature of higher education, long a hotbed of competing priorities, makes that a difficult conversation.
Shopping for a college education is not like buying a new car, and building an effective institution to provide that education is not like building one. If one of us goes into a car dealership with a plan to buy the most stripped-down vehicle on the lot, and we stick to that plan, we have a pretty good idea of what we will drive away owning: a car without many of the nifty features now available. No GPS, no satellite radio. We will have a smaller engine, which we understand will leave our simple little car a bit underpowered on the highway.
But we know too that we will have a car equipped with the basic safety features required by law -- seatbelts and airbags -- and that it will have the components necessary to drive off the lot: four wheels supporting a frame, powered by an engine.
But what is it about a college education that is truly essential? And how do we arrive at that conclusion? We can start with the curriculum, but if there is an institution out there that has not suffered through lengthy debates about the components of that curriculum, neither of us knows where it is. The only thing constant about the “essential” components of a curriculum has been the regular change each institution imposes on it.
Foreign languages, for example, have been a mainstay of a liberal arts education. But as demand has lessened and resources have dwindled, a number of institutions have reduced or eliminated this requirement. Skill in writing has long been one hallmark of a college education, but at many large research institutions, students can graduate having written fewer than a dozen substantive papers, many of those having been graded and returned with few comments and corrections. Colleges and universities have added, and then removed, requirements for courses addressing diversity, gender issues, global concerns.
What was essential in one decade is seen as frivolous in another. At the furthest extreme is an institution as esteemed as Brown University, which has no required courses among its thousands of offerings.
Is academic support a “frill”? If one agrees that writing is indeed an essential component, then is a writing center that provides intensive tutoring in this skill also an essential component? That’s a fairly easy argument to make. And yet, in a time of budget cuts, we have seen writing centers forced to reduce their hours and staff. At what point does this essential component become so limited that an institution’s mission is threatened?
To return to the car-buying analogy, we know that tastes and needs have an impact on standard equipment in a car, and that over time, we adjust our expectations of that equipment upward. One would be hard-pressed, for example, to find a car without a radio today. It doesn’t mean the radio hasn’t added to the cost of the car, just that we are in agreement that we will accept the cost as part of the price of the car.
But easy acceptance has never been part of academic culture. We can, and do, argue over everything from the lack of vegetarian options in the dining halls to class schedules, from the awarding of tenure to a less-than-stellar instructor to the political correctness of a mascot. Debate is, one could argue, an essential component of our mission (though we have to admit there are days when we wish it were a frill that we might be willing to do away with). The risk for our institutions is not in the content of this debate, but in the oft-reflexive assumptions we bring to the debate, which can then degenerate into a harsh and morale-sapping exchange between groups of colleagues.
“No-frills education” discussions have their common fodder: gleaming recreation centers, posh residence halls with concierge desks, heavily-funded student activities events, athletics and all its attendant costs. These are among the items that proponents of “no-frills” education seek to eliminate. The “no-frills” education offered by Southern New Hampshire University, for example, is a commuter-based approach to garnering credits; many classes are taught by the same faculty who teach at the university’s “heavily frilled” other campus. But are those students getting the same education as their peers down the road? Perhaps they don’t need a recreation center, but is there any doubt that students learn valuable skills from activities outside the classroom?
Over the past 20 years, service learning as a component of the curriculum has become increasingly common as faculty and students alike, supported by data, acknowledge the deep level of learning that takes place when students must put their classroom skills to good use in the community. What about learning to develop a budget for an organization, motivating volunteers, evaluating the success of an effort? And practically speaking, how does a no-frills education impact a student’s relationship with the institution? Will these students be loyal alums 10 or 20 years after graduation?
It’s equally critical that we remember that very few frills are either/or propositions. Most exist on a continuum of cost and usefulness. Perhaps a climbing wall (a “frill” often cited as an example of an unnecessary expenditure) isn’t a good use of campus dollars. But is a fitness center with basic cardio equipment that gives students, as well as faculty and staff, a convenient way to relieve stress and stay healthy in that same category? Similarly, a residence hall with a spectacular view of Boston’s skyline, such as the luxury accommodations recently opened by Boston University, can hardly be discussed in the same conversation as the standard double-room, shared-bath residence halls still operating on most campuses.
These debates about “amenities” versus “necessities,” about what our students need versus what they want, rage on, as they should. It is our responsibility as the keepers of our institution’s educational integrity to own these debates and decisions. If we abrogate our responsibility to do this, someone else, like a state legislator or policy maker or a popular magazine that makes a bundle on its “rankings” issue, will step in.
Who should get to decide that a particular outside-the-classroom activity is a frill? Living on campus is a “frill” in the minds of some higher education policy makers, and certainly the community college system in American has shown for a century that students can receive a good education without experiencing dorm life. But who would argue that learning to live with others isn’t a valuable skill? It’s certainly one we hope our neighbors have learned before they move into the townhouse next door.
Is residence life essential? No. Is it a frill? No. Is it somewhere in the middle? Most likely. So who on any given campus is best positioned to determine whether it stays or goes as part of a move toward “no-frills” education?
An athletics program is similarly difficult to gauge. At one of our institutions, a small, professionally focused college, athletics was eliminated without much of a fight, and the college hasn’t missed a step.
At the other of our institutions, a small, selective liberal arts college, a quarter of the students participate in an intercollegiate sport. The budget to support these efforts, while modest compared to larger schools, is not insubstantial at a time when every dollar is scrutinized. There are on this campus, as we’re sure there are on every campus, those who would characterize athletics as a “frill.”
But if we eliminated the entire program, or even a few sports, enrollment would suffer greatly as those student-athletes sought other opportunities to continue their athletic pursuits, and we would have a hard time keeping our doors open for the rest of our students. It’s also worth pointing out that on this campus, as is the case on many small college campuses, our athletes are retained at a higher rate, and receive less financial aid, than the student body in general.
Some of the “no-frill” efforts being proposed are closely aligned with a view of higher education that is more vocational in nature, more targeted at providing students with skills essential to building an effective and pliable work force to rebuild the American, and global, economy. Setting aside the enormous question of whether this should be the true purpose of a college education, we nonetheless need to consider the role of career services in this equation.
Does a “no-frills” institution help its students find jobs after education? Perhaps, but how? Does it help students identify possible internships with employers? That would be a good idea. Does it invite recruiters to campus to interview students? That makes sense. Does there need to be an employee whose responsibility it is to arrange these internships and visits? That is helpful. Should someone work to prepare these students for these interviews? Review their resumes? Help them determine which recruiters might be of interest to them? Offer a workshop on interviewing skills? Those services make sense if the institution is truly committed to helping students move successfully into the workforce. So now perhaps this institution needs a career services office to provide these opportunities, replete with staff, a small resource library, some career-oriented software supplied on office-located computers.
Frills? Yes, no, and somewhere in between, depending on the vantage point from which you approach the matter.
The point of these examples is not to lead us down a path of endless debate about residence halls, athletics, career services, student activities, or any of the “frills” that proponents of “no-frills” would like to eliminate. It’s to point out that we have, at this point, no agreed-upon framework with which to discuss and define “essential” versus “frill.”
Will these “no-frills” campuses take a pass on academic support services? How about orientation or a campus conduct system? Will faculty at these no-frills institutions be any more comfortable dealing with students in serious academic or emotional distress than our faculty colleagues are now, most of whom appear grateful to have a counseling center (which some might consider a “frill”) to refer these students? Will students with learning and physical disabilities still be able to get the assistance they need, or will anything beyond the bare minimum required by the federal government be considered a “frill” and cast aside along with the climbing wall, spring concert, turf field and whatever else is the frill-of-the-day as portrayed in the media?
We can’t, and won’t, answer yes or no to these, though we each have our opinions. We just want to propose that each institution should own its discussion about these matters. Casting aspersions on the work of others, on the contributions of that work to students and to an institution’s core mission, is not productive. What is productive is an ongoing, civil conversation about those students and that core mission, and an effort to first build a framework for that conversation that educates each of us in the work of one another.
Every institution must have its own conversation, and no two institutions will reach identical conclusions. One institution’s frill is another institution’s essential service: ours to decide, and ours to defend. Leaving the definition of “frill” to others puts us at grave risk of losing control over our very purpose. We must look inward for the anchor points of this conversation. Who are our students, and what do we owe them? What do they need from us (rather than want from us) to ensure they have the best chance of succeeding at whatever it is we have crafted as our institution’s goals? And then we must measure what we offer against those goals, rather than against the college down the road that is awash in apparent frills (which, perhaps, they don’t define that way, and that is, of course, their prerogative).
What each one of us believes is essential may not be what another believes is essential, but we do share, at our best, a deep commitment to this work of educating college students, and we each deserve a voice in the conversation.
Lee Burdette Williams and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu is dean of the core division at Champlain College.
Administrative costs on college campuses have soared in recent years, contributing in no small measure to the striking rise in student tuition and fees. Higher education leaders themselves are at least partly to blame for this, as their institutions’ focus on rankings and reputation has led them to spend increasing amounts of time and money on non-academic matters. But true to college officials’ complaints, the growing demands of government regulation also contribute significantly to the administrative bloat.
I propose that institutions be much more explicit about the money they spend to meet federal (and, for public colleges, state) demands. They should add a line to their tuition bills called the Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee, so that parents and students (and, yes, politicians) know just how much regulation costs them. Here’s why.
The explosion in administration costs has been striking. With the number of campus administrators, on average, now equaling the number of faculty members (and, perhaps even exceeding it given the increased reliance on adjunct faculty as resources are shifted to from instructional to full-time administrative positions), it appears that the university administration has become the tail that now wags the educational dog.
Some of this administrative burden is clearly self-imposed. When college students became customers, and institutional rankings became focused on reputation, fund raising and selectivity rather than educational opportunity or academic quality, the education of students became almost incidental to the institutional priority of getting onto somebody’s – anybody’s – top 10 list.
Who has time to worry about what happens in the classroom when there are glossy brochures to design and publish, colleagues to woo (it is they who will assess your institutional reputation when ranking season rolls around), earmarks to seek, research infrastructures to build, grants to win, press to avoid, coaches to hire, merchandising opportunities to pursue and donors to cultivate? I sometimes wonder how cheaply we could run colleges and universities if we got rid of capital campaigns, selectivity ratings, federal grant programs, commercial athletic enterprises, and architectural showcasing and went back to the traditional focus on … silly me … teaching and learning.
Oh that’s right, we do know how affordable it is to educate students without all of the extras -- community colleges are the perpetual reminder of how inexpensive it can be to provide a quality education at an affordable price (although these institutions are currently under-resourced given the role they play not only as institutions of higher education, but also as the new high schools).
Rules Require Cost Shifts
Nonetheless, a great deal of administrative burden does flow from the growing list of federal regulations that may ultimately be the greatest barrier to innovation, efficiency and quality in higher education. Many of these regulations force institutions to shift valuable resources away from classroom instruction and into administrative functions and salaries, not to mention electronic data systems, non-instructional facilities, external advisory groups, and teams of consultants and lawyers who help institutions complete the annual ritual of checking boxes and submitting reports to bureaucrats who are unlikely to read them and who will never confirm their accuracy.
In fact, even when regulators know that they are asking institutions to use outdated and faulty methods to collect inaccurate data on a non-representative population of students, they still hold institutions accountable for producing the coveted report. Can you say … IPEDS?
That does not mean that all regulations are bad or wasteful. Truth be told, there are many regulations that are productive, necessary and critical to maintaining our national edge in the area of higher education. The federal regulatory framework does, in many ways, level the playing field among institutions and set minimal standards for financial and instructional integrity among a group of institutions that are increasingly focused on the wrong priorities. And for those institutions engaged in scientific research, some regulations are critical to ensuring student and worker safety and to protecting our national security when sensitive work or materials are involved (although the current regulations are outdated and far too expansive in this regard).
It is true that colleges and universities can opt out of a great number of federal regulations simply by declining to participate in certain federal programs, such as federal student aid programs and federal grant programs. But during this time of shrinking state support and significant endowment losses, can institutions afford to turn away ANY potential source of funding? I sometimes wonder if institutions ever do the math to determine if the benefits of participating in various federal programs -- and especially federal grant programs -- actually exceed the costs.
While some degree of regulation is a good and necessary thing, how do elected officials, and perhaps even more importantly, the voters, know when the regulatory burden is too great? As we see with each reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965, when Congress can’t do anything to address the legitimate challenges that students or institutions face, they show the love by authorizing grant programs that will never be funded, expanding existing programs that have never shown positive results, and adding layer upon layer of additional regulations so that they can tell their constituents just how serious they are about solving all of higher education’s problems.
Congress can’t actually guarantee that undergraduates will have access to the Nobel-winning faculty featured on the glossy college brochures, and they can’t force an institution to offer enough sections of required courses so that all students can graduate in four years, but they sure can force institutions to tabulate more data and report on more things. Whether or not the data are meaningful or the reports are useful is not terribly important. One wonders, however, if for the cost of writing yet another report, the institution could have hired another professor to teach freshman composition.
Sure, it sounds good for an elected official to say that he or she is going to hold an institution “accountable” for instructional quality, or campus safety, or cost containment, but what if the regulatory framework intended to improve a legitimate problem only makes it worse? For example, what if regulations aimed at increasing retention rates serve only to provide the sort of perverse incentives that further erode institutional quality? After all, the unintended consequence of our past efforts to increase high school completion rates is that we essentially made the high school diploma meaningless, and yet we still can’t give the thing away to 20% of the population.
Or what if regulations intended to control escalating college costs serve only to make it more expensive to operate – and, therefore, attend – an institution of higher education? What if regulations intended to increase the quality of classroom instruction do nothing more than shift precious resources away from the classroom and over to the administration building?
The problem with our current regulatory system is that voters do not have access to the sort of information that would allow them to evaluate the true efficacy or the actual cost of the regulations created or imposed by the officials they elect (no, elected officials don’t write the regulations, but it is they who write the laws that require, and set the specifications by which agencies promulgate and enforce regulations). I’ll bet that the average student or parent has no idea just how many federal regulations apply to institutions of higher education, or how the compliance burden contributes to soaring costs.
Elected officials of both parties have realized the polling benefits associated with castigating higher education leaders about rising tuition costs, but do the voters understand that each time Congress passes a law, they contribute significantly to those rising college costs? In the absence of good information, voters seem to think that doing something is better than doing nothing, especially when they are misled into believing that someone other than them will pay the cost (as if regulatory costs are ever absorbed by producers and not passed along to consumers).
Calculating, Not Complaining
In order to provide students and voters with the information they need to make informed decisions, it is imperative that colleges and universities provide clear information about the true costs of these regulations to the people who ultimately foot the bill -- the students, their parents, and the taxpayers.
Instead of just complaining about regulatory burden, colleges and universities should take the time to calculate actual cost of compliance -- including the cost of personnel, information systems, specialized facilities, and programmatic changes that are required to meet regulatory standards -- and then disclose this information to students and the public on the institution’s homepage as well as on each student’s bill.
Moreover, instead of burying compliance costs in the overall tuition rate, I urge institutions to start billing students separately for their portion of the compliance costs through a line-item Federal Regulatory Compliance Fee. Utilities have used this sort of billing practice for years, and perhaps it is time that colleges and universities follow the lead to inform students of just how much the federal government shares in creating, rather than solving, the problem of rising college costs.
Then, when new regulations require the institution to hire more staff or purchase new technology, the students will understand the direct connection between the cost of attendance and increased regulatory burden. Not only will this allow academic leaders to place the cost-increase blame squarely on the shoulders of the responsible parties, but it will also provide students and the public with the information they need to engage more effectively in the democratic process.
Conversely, the data may reveal that regulatory burden contributes only minimally to rising college costs, in which case we know to start looking harder for the real problem.
Regulations clearly have associated benefits as well as costs, but there is generally scant information about the cost side of the equation and an overabundance of promises on the benefits side. It is my guess that once students and the public have access to accurate information, they may be willing to forfeit a few of those “government assurances” in order to be able to afford the opportunity to attend college in the first place.
And with a paring down of regulations to those that are truly important, institutions may be better positioned to comply more fully while at the same time allowing the dog to, once again, wag its tail.
Diane Auer Jones
Diane Auer Jones is president and CEO of the Washington Campus and former U.S. assistant secretary for postsecondary education.
Recent headlines have been full of disappointment for Americans, particularly regarding institutions that affect their daily lives. First it was the banks who argued that they were “too big to fail” in asking for a federal bailout and then proceeded to award obscene bonuses to their executives. Then it was the automakers, who made a mockery of the maxim “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country” when CEOs of the “big three” took corporate jets to Washington to plead for their own rescue package.
Now, it seems, higher education is joining the list. As colleges and universities hike tuition and cap enrollments while pleading for billions of federal dollars, we have new evidence that public disappointment and disillusionment with higher education are building rapidly. Through new opinion research conducted by our organization, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and Public Agenda, the American public is sending messages that colleges and universities and state and federal policymakers cannot afford to ignore. These messages include:
Alma mater has become Higher Ed, Inc. While most academics bristle at the admonition for higher education to run more like a business, that is exactly what’s happening in the public’s view, and they’re not sure they like it. We were surprised enough when more than half of Americans voiced the belief three years ago that colleges and universities are more interested in their bottom lines than in providing a good education for students. We have been even more surprised -- and dismayed -- to see that figure jump almost 10 percentage points in just three years.
Let’s be clear. The public is not saying that they do not want higher education institutions to focus on efficiency and effectiveness. In fact, they believe colleges and universities could educate more students with the resources they have. When they see tuition rates outpacing the average family’s paycheck even in times of economic distress, or read stories about excessive compensation of college presidents or about universities bailing out athletic programs while furloughing faculty, it isn’t hard to see how people might be just a bit skeptical about higher education’s priorities.
We can walk and chew gum when it comes to balancing access, quality and cost. In some of our earlier research, we uncovered a pervasive belief among college presidents that cost, access, and quality are locked in a zero-sum game, one that we dubbed “the iron triangle.” Expanding access means either increasing costs or sacrificing quality, containing costs requires limited access or skimping on quality, and so on. As in previous recessions, we are seeing this belief in action in the states, as some of our largest public college and university systems are freezing or rolling back enrollment and/or hiking tuition in the name of preserving quality.
The problem is that a growing majority of Americans just don’t buy that line of argument. More than half of those surveyed agree with the statements that colleges could spend less and still provide a quality education and that colleges could serve more students without hiking prices or damaging quality. These numbers have held steady over the past three years, which is not surprising, given that most people are experiencing significant changes in the workplace due to the recession, international competition, and technological change. They have not seen evidence of parallel innovations in higher education, and they’re wondering why.
We can’t live without higher education, but can we live with it? Simply put, people are feeling trapped. The “squeeze play” -- the combination of beliefs that higher education is essential but that many qualified students are being shut out -- continues and the majority agreeing with both of these statements has reached record highs. This trend is likely to continue as the economy continues to punish the undereducated most severely, and the fiscal slump prompts more tuition hikes and enrollment caps in the face of severe national economic distress. As the squeeze on students and families intensifies and confidence in the altruistic mission of colleges erodes, higher education’s position in the competition for public resources when the economy recovers may be seriously undermined.
So what does this mean?
For colleges and universities and their advocates in Washington, the message being sent by the public is clear. Spending time and money explaining why higher education is essential to the nation’s future is not the answer. Our data show very plainly that the American people get it when it comes to the need for higher education. But those same data also depict a public that is quickly becoming increasingly skeptical of the leadership and management of colleges and universities.
Rather than acknowledging the public’s concerns, some higher education lobbyists and advocates instead criticize the public as uninformed. While the average American may not understand the details of the higher education enterprise, the point is that the American people are anxious, frustrated, and not convinced that colleges and universities are being managed in ways that are consistent with their values. A PR campaign will not fix that. In this case, actions truly will speak louder than words.
For policy makers at the state and federal levels, these numbers represent a signal that voters are increasingly interested in what they are doing and will do to keep higher education affordable and accessible. The answers will not be easy in this campaign season, with the federal stimulus tapering off and many states facing severe budget shortfalls.
The inconvenient but unavoidable truth is that the time has come to talk about real changes in how higher education is funded and delivered.
Even before the current economic downturn, cost had become the dominant public concern about American higher education. As the president of a private college, it had also become my dominant concern. And with good reason: over the past decade, following the national trend, tuition at my institution increased at a faster rate than inflation, than the growth in family incomes, even faster than the increase in health care spending. Many of our students were graduating with considerable debt. It was obvious, as well, that cost was discouraging too many students from modest backgrounds from viewing my institution as a realistic option.
So each year we struggled with two decisions -- where to set tuition for the following year and how much institutional financial aid we should offer. We wanted to keep the college affordable but, at the same time, wanted additional resources to invest in our ongoing efforts to strengthen programs. But each year, after some gnashing of teeth, we opted to set tuition and institutional aid at levels that would maximize our net tuition revenue. Why? We were following conventional wisdom that said that investing more resources translates into higher quality and higher quality attracts more resources.
Among the colleges and universities I know best, quality is the main driver. And most people inside and outside the academy – including those who control influential rating systems of the sort published by U.S. News & World Report -- define academic quality as small classes taught by distinguished faculty, grand campuses with impressive libraries and laboratories, and bright students heavily recruited. Since all of these indicators of quality are costly, my college’s pursuit of quality, like that of so many others, led us to seek more revenue to spend on quality improvements. And the strategy worked.
Over the last decade, every available dollar we had from tuition revenue, as well as from enrollment growth and fund raising, was invested in traditional indicators of quality. We built new state-of-the-art facilities, hired great professors, gave generous scholarships to high-achieving students, maintained small classes, expanded our co-curricular activities and invested in a host of high-impact educational practices such as learning communities, service learning, and diversity initiatives. And our reputation for quality grew exponentially. Our applications have doubled over the last decade and now, for the first time in our 134-year history, we receive the majority of our applications from out-of-state students.
But our nagging concern about affordability wouldn’t go away. We didn’t need fancy economic models to realize that our college, along with so many others, was quickly approaching a very steep cliff. If we continued to raise tuition as we had in the past, more and more prospective students, even those who had their hearts set on attending our institution, would find that they simply could not afford to do so. It became clear that, unless we found ways to reduce our costs, and moderate our annual tuition increases as well, there was no way to avoid the cliff, no matter how quickly the economy recovered. We were caught in a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” dilemma. No one wants to cut costs if their reputation for quality will suffer, yet no one wants to fall off the cliff.
I believe that, for the vast majority of colleges and universities, public as well as private, the elephant in the room is the cost structure of our academic programs. We don’t talk about it because of the perception that cost is inextricably related to quality, and no one is ready to sacrifice that. When quality is defined by those things that require substantial resources, efforts to reduce costs are doomed to failure.
But we know there is another way to think about quality. Beginning with Sandy Astin in the 1980’s and extending to Jamie Merisotis today, some of the best thinkers in higher education have urged us to define the quality in terms of student outcomes.
The notion of defining quality in terms of outputs rather than inputs, by the achievements of our graduates rather than the achievements of our entering class, had been a key element in the strategic plan my institution began developing in 2002. During the planning process, dissatisfaction with traditional models of education came to the surface. Faculty said they wanted to move away from giving lectures and then having students parrot the information back to them on tests. They said they were tired of complaining that students couldn’t write well or think critically, but not having the time to address those problems because there was so much material to cover. And they were concerned when they read that employers had reported in national surveys that, while graduates knew a lot about the subjects they studied, they didn’t know how to apply what they had learned to practical problems or work in teams or with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Based on those concerns, and informed by the literature on the “teaching to learning” paradigm shift, we began to change our focus from what we were teaching to what and how our students were learning. In the process, we broadened our conception of what students should learn by including more than subject-specific information. We established what we call college-wide learning goals that focus on "essential" skills and attributes that are critical for success in our increasingly complex world. These include critical and analytical thinking, creativity, writing and other communication skills, leadership, collaboration and teamwork, and global consciousness, social responsibility and ethical awareness.
Shifting our paradigm from teaching to learning enabled us to approach the question of cost in an entirely new way. Instead of assuming we needed all of the expensive accouterments of quality, we could focus our attention on those things known to have the most impact on student learning. And it doesn’t take long to discover that, despite claims to the contrary, many of the factors that drive up costs add little value. Research conducted by Dennis Jones and Jane Wellman found that “there is no consistent relationship between spending and performance, whether that is measured by spending against degree production, measures of student engagement, evidence of high impact practices, students’ satisfaction with their education, or future earnings.” Indeed, they concluded that “the absolute level of resources is less important than the way those resources are used.”
So we started searching the literature for instructional designs that require fewer resources and result in high levels of student learning. The ones we found shared certain characteristics. They were driven by clear learning goals and involved extensive assessment and feedback to students. They stressed active learning and took maximum advantage of technology. In each design, faculty spent less time lecturing and more time coaching, proactively asking and answering questions with groups of students. And faculty were assisted in their coaching role by teaching assistants or peer mentors. Finally, economies of scale helped to produce significant cost savings.
With these principles in mind, and with support and encouragement from my board, I decided to commission a demonstration project. I pulled together a team from our school of business and told them that the goal was to develop an undergraduate degree completion program in business that produced more and better learning at half the cost of our traditional program. After more than a year, the group had developed what we now describe as a low-residency, project- and competency-based program. Here students don’t take courses or earn grades. The requirements for the degree are for students to complete a series of projects, captured in an electronic portfolio, that mirror core activities in the business world. To complete each project, students must acquire and apply specific competencies – competencies identified as necessary to function effectively in a modern business. The list of competencies also includes all of our college-wide learning goals. Students acquire the competencies by accessing a rich repository of learning resources and activities that our faculty have compiled and made available online. These are enriched with multimedia features, communication and social networking capacities and contextually rich simulations and animations. Faculty spend their time coaching students, providing them with feedback on their projects and running two-day residencies that bring students to campus periodically to learn through intensive face-to-face interaction.
After a year and a half, the evidence suggests that students are learning as much as, if not more than, those enrolled in our traditional business program. Although it will take some time to fully evaluate this model, and to assess the true costs of delivery, the approach shows real promise.
One thing we are learning is that providing students with sophisticated online learning materials and supporting their learning with face-to-face interaction with faculty who are attuned to their different interests, orientations and learning styles can be a powerful combination. That’s consistent with a meta-analysis recently published by the U.S. Department of Education, which showed that students learn more in courses that combined online and face-to-face elements (called hybrid or blended learning) than they do in programs that are exclusively online or exclusively classroom-based. In short, the report documented that high-tech plus high-touch works best.
As the campus learns more about the demonstration project, other faculty are expressing interest in applying its design principles to courses and degree programs in their fields. They created a Learning Coalition as a forum to explore different ways to capitalize on the potential of the learning paradigm. They designed a problem-based general education curriculum for high-achieving students. They are using students as peer teachers in a number of settings. Every academic program has articulated a set of program-specific learning goals and is developing ways of assessing student progress toward these goals. And our business faculty members are designing a new M.B.A. program using a model similar to the one they used in the demonstration project.
There are hundreds of private institutions like mine that have longstanding and well-deserved reputations for maintaining high standards for student achievement and providing personal encouragement and support for students to meet those standards. High-touch is at the core of their educational philosophy. That is a costly model that I fear is unsustainable. I don’t know if hybrid or blended instruction will be the magic bullet that allows us to cut our costs and thus moderate the rate of our annual increases in tuition. It’s more likely that different programs will find different ways to integrate efficiencies, high-tech or not, into their largely high-touch designs. Some, like theater and studio art, may not be able to do so at all.
My institution will continue to experiment with different instructional designs until we find approaches that work for us. But I suspect we won’t have the luxury of time. There are enough for-profit and not-for-profit institutions that are quickly putting the pieces together to be in a position to mass-market multiple high-quality, low-cost degree programs that students of all types will find enormously attractive.
I don’t know how close we are to the edge of the cliff where we find we have priced ourselves out of the market. Perhaps the cliff is really a slippery slope that we have been on for some time. Or perhaps we’ll tap into a new and lucrative market, like many of us did twenty years ago when we developed programs for adults, which will enable us to subsidize our high-touch programs.
Trying to predict the future is fraught with risks. But I believe that private colleges, including largely residential colleges with modest resources, can survive the challenges ahead. There are many families who see great value in having their children leave home to have the holistic and often transformative learning experiences these schools provide. At the same time, I see danger ahead unless we can cut the Gordian knot between cost and quality. At the very least, finding innovative ways to lower costs without compromising student learning is wise competitive positioning for an uncertain future. The search at my college continues.
Michael Bassis is president of Westminster College.
In February 2009, at a meeting of the American Council on Education, I challenged a group of university presidents and other leaders of higher education to focus on the need for greater innovation in higher education. I encouraged those leaders to heed the lesson offered by George Romney to the auto industry in the 1970s to innovate or lose their advantage: “There is nothing more vulnerable than entrenched success,” he said. I followed up in October 2009 with an article in Newsweek entitled "The Three-Year Solution: How the reinvention of higher education benefits parents, students, and schools."
The response has been pleasantly surprising.
Over the past year and a half, a growing number of institutions of higher education came forward with proposals to offer three-year degrees to their students. Here are a few examples:
Grace College, in Winona Lake, Ind., is offering an accelerated three-year degree in each of its 50-plus major areas of study. Dr. Ronald Manahan, Grace's president, cites the cost of college as a driving force behind the decision. “We have listened to people’s concerns about [the cost of] higher education and we are answering them,” he said.
Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, Pa., is offering a three-year bachelor of interior architecture without summer classes, allowing students to get into the job market a year earlier. School officials have reconfigured the four-year degree by cutting Studio classes from 14 weeks to just seven, and when compared to similar programs, these students graduate two years earlier.
Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Tex., is offering an accelerated three-year medical degree, rather than the usual four. The program is aimed at making it easier and more affordable for students to become family doctors.
As institutions of higher education look into the possibility of offering a three-year degree, some have run into federal policies that seem to interfere with their ability to innovate. For example, this May I received a letter from Jimmy Cheek, chancellor of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, describing a potential obstacle to a three-year degree surrounding student loans.
Here’s the issue: Under the Higher Education Act, student loan limits are tightly set to prevent over-borrowing by students. Federal annual loan limits and lifetime loan limits establish a maximum amount one can borrow under the federal student loan program. The annual loan limits are designed to pay for two semesters per year (see chart below).
Example: Scheduled Academic Year
Scheduled Academic Year 1
Fall 2010 and Spring 2011
Scheduled Academic Year 2
Fall 2011 and Spring 2012
Scheduled Academic Year 3
Fall 2012 and Spring 2013
Scheduled Academic Year 4
Fall 2013 and Spring 2014
For most institutions of higher education, and most students, this works and makes sense. But 3-year degree students often take a third semester’s worth of classes over the summer. The federal limits appear to prevent students from obtaining a loan to pay for those summer courses.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Working with the Congressional Research Service, and the staff of the U.S. Department of Education, my office has identified an option that exists under current regulations to give flexibility on these loan limits to institutions of higher education and students. Instead of following a standard “Scheduled Academic Year” as outlined above, an institution of higher education offering a three-year degree could award loans to students through a “Borrower-Based Academic Year," per the chart below:
Example: Borrower-Based Academic Year
Scheduled Academic Year 1
Fall 2010 and Spring 2011
Scheduled Academic Year 2
Summer 2011 and Fall 2011
Scheduled Academic Year 3
Spring 2012 and Summer 2012
Scheduled Academic Year 4
Fall 2012 and Spring 2013
This option would use the same annual loan limits and lifetime loan limits, but compress them to match the student’s academic schedule. Compared to the typical “Fall-Spring” academic year over each of the four years, a three-year degree program could use a “Fall-Spring, Summer-Fall, Spring-Summer” structure to allow for a compressed academic schedule.
I have been told that this “Borrower-Based Academic Year” option is currently not well used because it is administratively complicated for institutions to offer both “Scheduled Academic Year” and “Borrower-Based Academic Year” loan structures at the same time for individual students. But for an institution that offers a comprehensive three-year degree program involving a number of students, this seems to make sense as a way of helping students in that program afford the tuition and fees.
I have asked Chancellor Cheek to let me know if this option would work for the University of Tennessee, or if more flexibility needs to be added. When Congress last reauthorized the Higher Education Act in 2008, we made several changes to the Pell Grant program to allow that funding to be used on a year-round basis. There is no reason students should not have that same flexibility with their student loans.
It is my hope that more institutions will explore innovative ways to provide a high-quality postsecondary education. The three-year degree is one idea for some well-prepared students, but it is vital to our competitiveness as a nation that we develop other ideas to improve the efficiency of higher education and expand access to more Americans.
Institutions of higher education are rightly feeling pressure from parents, students, state and local leaders, the business community, Congress, and the Obama administration to do a better job of providing more Americans with a quality college education at an affordable price. That pressure will likely grow more intense every year as more jobs require higher education, advanced certificates, or technological skills from their applicants.
Some have asked whether all colleges and universities should be required to offer a three-year degree. My answer is a resounding no. Just as the hybrid car isn’t for everyone, all students and all institutions won’t want a three-year degree. The last thing we need is more federal mandates on higher education.
The strength of our higher education system is that we have 6,000 independent, autonomous institutions that compete in the marketplace for students. It is that marketplace that needs to develop the new ideas for the future -- and not become a victim of its own “entrenched success" -- so that our students, and our country, can continue to thrive.
Senator Lamar Alexander
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He served as U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and as president of the University of Tennessee.
Rather than bore you with the details of our recent report highlighting problems with the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI) and the Higher Education Cost Adjustment (HECA), we thought we’d tell you about recent developments concerning lunch at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP).
Contract negotiations at CCAP typically involve plenty of Janx Spirits and closely resemble Ford Prefect’s favorite drinking game. After winning the previous round against our boss, we insisted on a lunch per diem. We decided that we would construct the Lunchtime Cost Index (LCI) so that we would know how much the per diem should be each week.
Everything was going smoothly, until one day, while eating our now routine steak and scotch lunch at Smith and Wollensky, we realized that CCAP was in dire financial straits. We conducted a thorough analysis to determine the cause of this unexpected turn of events. It turned out we were spending an inordinate amount of money on the newly established lunch per diems. We studied charts showing that the per diems, adjusted by the LCI, were relatively stable. And yet here we were, running out of money.
With little else to be done, we brought in consultants to get to the bottom of things. The final ValueLandShackWoodenShowerRepair, LLC report (we couldn’t afford the better-known PricewaterhouseCoopers) pointed out that when determining the cost of the per diems to CCAP, it was inappropriate to adjust them by the LCI. Doing so indicated the cost of the per diems relative to the cost of lunch (assuming the LCI accurately gauged the cost of lunch), but what we wanted to know was the cost of the per diems relative to everything else in the budget – something that a lunch-specific price index could not reveal.
Moreover, it turns out that the LCI was not even a good measure of the cost of lunch, because it was biased whenever there was a change in productivity, whenever substitution occurred, whenever quality changed, and because it was self-referential.
Prior to the lunch per diem, Andrew and Jonathan would trek to Subway and order an a la carte meatball sub every day ($5.00). The LCI was supposed to tell us the cost of maintaining a meatball sub’s worth of lunch. However, shortly after CCAP introduced the per diem, Subway introduced value meals. Now, we could get chips and a drink with our sub for the same $5.00. Theoretically, the LCI should have registered this as a decline in the cost of a meatball sub’s worth of lunch. But since we were still spending $5.00 at lunch, and the LCI was determined by asking how much the standard meatball sub option at Subway costs, the LCI reported that the cost of lunch was unchanged. Economists would say that the LCI missed the productivity increase -- more output (lunch) for the same input ($5) - and was therefore biased upward.
The following month, Subway raised the price of their meatball sub meal to $6.00. Quizno’s, however, did not. The price of their meatball sub meal remained at $5.00. Jonathan and Andrew started buying Quizno’s subs instead. However, the LCI continued to ask how much a meatball sub at Subway costs. By failing to account for the substitution from Subway to Quizno’s when their relative prices changed, the LCI was again biased upwards (reporting an increase when actual spending was unchanged).
The astute staff at CCAP quickly diagnosed this particular problem, and changed the methodology of the LCI from just the cost of a meatball sub at Subway to tabulating lunch costs wherever they were spent. In retrospect, this merely caused other problems.
Since Jonathan and Andrew were used to spending $5 out of pocket prior to the per diem, after they started receiving the per diem, it wasn’t long before they started to buy higher-quality meals. They were still willing to spend $5 out of pocket on lunch, which with the per diem meant that they could now spend $10. They started off upgrading to chicken subs at Subway and Quizno’s. These higher-cost subs would then drive up the LCI, and as the LCI grew, the per diem grew.
Of course, the cost of a meatball sub's worth of lunch hadn’t changed, but as higher-quality subs were ordered, the LCI was unable to disentangle the different effects. Because the LCI did not hold the quality of lunch constant, it was unable to distinguish between (1) cost increases due to changes in the quality of lunch and (2) cost increases due to higher prices for a given lunch.
The last problem we discovered was that our actions affected the LCI. As the per diem increased, it wasn’t long before Jonathan and Andrew began venturing beyond Subway and Quizno’s. Each move resulted in higher spending, which led to a higher LCI, which led to a higher per diem, which then spurred us to go to a better restaurant, starting the cycle again. The LCI kept increasing, not because the cost of lunch kept increasing, but simply because we spent more. In other words, the LCI was self-referential. It wasn’t long before we were eating a steak and scotch lunch at Smith and Wollensky every day.
Our consultants suggested that rather than creating a highly specific price index with all these problems, we should just use what everyone else uses 90 percent of the time, the Consumer Price Index (CPI). While the LCI was useful in answering some questions that were specific to CCAP lunch patterns, it was not at all appropriate to rely on it as a gauge of how much lunch should cost.
Sadly, before this sensible change could be implemented, Jonathan and Andrew lost the next round of contract negotiations, and with it, their lunch per diem. In fact, as punishment for the lost revenue, Jonathan and Andrew are required to write more op-eds. Fortunately, they’ve discovered that fiction can at times be easier to write than nonfiction.
Ridiculous as this may seem, our lunchtime escapades are not too far off from what has been occurring with HEPI and HECA in the higher education industry. In addition to both of them suffering from quality, productivity, and substitution biases, the HEPI is self-referential. Even more importantly, because of what they measure and how they measure it, their actual usage deviates substantially from their appropriate usage.
If we had our choice, Sarah Lawrence would never be listed among the most expensive colleges in America. Since we are, though, and in the premier position with tuition, fees, room, and board set at $58,716 for 2011-2012, it’s important that our colleagues in higher education – as well as the general public – understand exactly what goes into the price, why that investment yields an extraordinary liberal arts education that continues to offer dividends after graduation, and how we help deserving and qualified students attend, regardless of ability to pay.
One of the problems with "most expensive" lists of any kind is that they assume a uniformity of product or service. In fact, though, Sarah Lawrence differs from other institutions, even liberal arts colleges, in fundamental ways. For example, our faculty have twice the one-on-one contact time with individual students as faculty at other prestigious institutions, including liberal arts colleges.
That’s partly because over 90 percent of all Sarah Lawrence classes are small seminars (with an average of 11 students) and every seminar includes a "conference" component in which each student designs an independent project and meets biweekly with the professor to confer on progress. This is essentially a tutorial in the Oxford-Cambridge tradition. Also in that tradition, we assign each student a don, a full-time faculty member who serves as his or her adviser, mentor, and intellectual guide. Donning is necessary because Sarah Lawrence students are accountable for designing their own education in a curriculum with concentrations instead of majors, so the don’s expertise and individual knowledge of each student is consequently invaluable in helping chart the best possible academic course.
Like much at Sarah Lawrence, donning may be difficult to justify on a purely economic basis, as is our refusal to use graduate students as teaching assistants or our insistence on providing extensive written evaluations of each student in each course in addition to grades. But we maintain these standards because we believe the customized, "handcrafted" education we provide helps ensure that each student achieves his or her greatest potential. And like anything handcrafted, it is significantly more cost-intensive, and thus more costly, than what’s produced on an assembly line.
That said, the college is particularly sensitive to the financial pressures facing families. Because of our high sticker price, we feel compelled to provide the most robust financial aid possible, which is why our average financial aid award is over $34,000. But providing that kind of financial support to students, especially in these economic times, comes at a cost. Our faculty, staff, and administrators are in the second year of a salary freeze; we have among the lowest staff-to-student ratios in the liberal arts sector; and we can’t invest in our physical plant nearly as robustly as we’d like. Those are just some of the sacrifices we feel worthwhile to providing the best education possible and making it accessible via financial aid.
Ultimately, the most compelling response to the question of high cost is to focus instead on value. The key issue for us and our constituents is whether we’re providing graduates with the skills and competencies critical to living productive lives and pursuing successful careers.
To some degree, all good colleges do that. But again, Sarah Lawrence goes beyond the traditional benchmark as a result of our process and pedagogy. Because there are no majors, students learn to plan and navigate their own paths, frequently including multiple disciplines that would be impossible elsewhere. As a result, they learn how to learn just about anything. Because writing pervades the curriculum – in virtually every class -- they reason and communicate in a compellingly mature manner. And because we don’t offer vocational courses per se, they learn how to think like entrepreneurs and create their own jobs and careers, which is precisely what the world demands as traditional jobs and professions disappear or are outsourced.
Transformative is a word often used by our alumni to describe their educations, and it aptly describes the contributions of our better-known graduates, such as Chicago Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; MacArthur “genius” choreographer Meredith Monk; actors Julianna Margulies, Jane Alexander, and Jill Clayburgh; JJ Abrams, creator of Lost; broadcast journalist and author Barbara Walters; W. Ian Lipkin, physician-scientist whose team first identified the West Nile virus; and Brooke Anderson, Chief of Staff and Counselor for the National Security Agency.
The point, though, isn’t the renown achieved by our alumni. It’s that thousands of Sarah Lawrence grads have transformed themselves, their families, their workplaces, and their communities because of a truly unique educational experience.
And the fact that the model is costly? It means all of us need to find new and creative ways to generate revenue, reduce expenses, and ensure that future generations of deserving and qualified students can benefit from a Sarah Lawrence education. It’s far too glib to quote the MasterCard “priceless” line, and a Sarah Lawrence education is by no means for everyone, but for the intellectually adventurous student who wants to explore learning as deeply as possible under the personal tutelage of a brilliant and caring faculty, I believe there’s no finer education to be had anywhere. Without in any way minimizing the impact of our cost, we’re worth every penny.
Karen Lawrence is president of Sarah Lawrence College.
Henry E. Riggs, president emeritus of Harvey Mudd College and the Keck Graduate Institute, recently argued -- wrongly, in my view -- in The New York Times that it is supply and demand that explains why the price for college is so high. In fact, at the selective, nonprofit privates, there is huge excess demand for seats that is not cleared by price; the seats in these colleges are rationed, with all those rejected applicants (upwards of 90 percent of those who apply to some of these colleges) wanting a spot at the current price.
Price is explicitly not allowed to rise and clear the market. Some parents might have been willing to pay an extra $100 or $1,000 to get their child into their dream school, or perhaps even an extra $10,000, given what they are paying SAT tutors and admissions advisers. Colleges and universities create this excess demand, so that they can select the students they want from the long queue of applicants, recognizing that the quality of their college or university depends to a large extent on the quality of the students who attend. The excess demand is intentional, and is generated by spending more than the price charged and spending those resources in ways that make the institution as attractive as possible to desirable students. Some colleges do this by keeping class size small; some do it by having great football teams.
These expenditure decisions in part depend on what kind of students the college wants to attract – how they define student quality. Why doesn’t Pomona College eliminate tuition and spend less on each student, perhaps what Earlham College spends, as suggested by Riggs? Because then the excess demand on the part of students for a Pomona education would go down, and Pomona would not get to choose among the same quality of applicants as they do now. And they realize that eliminating tuition wouldn’t increase that excess demand as much as cutting spending reduces it. Many families are willing and able to pay for those things that would have to be cut, were tuition not bringing in any revenue to support spending, and will go elsewhere in search of those programs. Are these families and students just in search of prestige? I would argue that prestige is closely related to the quality of the program and of the students who attend an institution, which in turn depends importantly if not perfectly on how much is being spent per student, and not so much on price.
Do they "need" to spend so much, as Riggs asks? Maybe another way of asking this is, is it good for American higher education, or more importantly for America, that this is how this market works? An important outcome of this is that the most talented students, as defined by these selective institutions, have the most spent on their educations. And, with significant resources allocated to financial aid and a commitment to diversity, this includes talented students from all different backgrounds, certainly more so than in the past. If talented students benefit the most from large investments in their education, then this may be optimal. (One could still worry a bit about more being spent on students that these institutions value for reasons other than academic talent, such as legacy status or athletic ability.)
The important public policy question, which in times of budget cuts will become increasingly important, is just how much more should be spent on talented students relative to others. As funding for public higher education, where most students are educated, continues to be reduced, relative spending will shift even more toward the talented students who get admitted to the most selective schools. To the extent that the nonprofit private sector and these selective colleges remain committed to and increase their commitment to academically talented students from all backgrounds, through their admissions and financial aid policies, their large investments are being made for the right reasons.
Catharine Hill is a higher education economist and the president of Vassar College.