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Without question, undergraduate education in the United States has an affordability challenge, one that began long before the pandemic. To date, however, no one has come up with sufficiently disruptive proposals to reinvent colleges in ways that contain or reduce the price that students and their families pay -- or the accompanying debt they often must shoulder.

Rethinking higher education is now even more compelling, given COVID-19 and the significant pivot of colleges and universities to online education this spring, along with the continuing widespread inaccessibility to a traditional residential life. The new face of college necessitated by the pandemic has raised fundamental questions among significantly more people about whether traditional residential education is worth it.

What we have historically seen as “reinvention” in traditional higher education has just been some nibbling around the edges of the current business model. To generate revenue, reduce institutional costs and lower tuition, colleges have relied on measures such as enrolling as many full-pay students (often international or out-of-state) as possible, further discounting tuition, adding online courses and expanding adult education. All those steps and more, however, have not done much to resolve the financial challenges for institutions and their students.

Yet colleges could potentially reduce their costs by radically reinventing at least one major component of contemporary undergraduate education: student life and nonacademic ancillary services. And they could then pass the savings on in the form of lower tuition to students and families, if they were willing to do so.

In an article in The Atlantic, “Why Is College in America So Expensive?” Amanda Ripley writes that “The U.S. ranks No. 1 in the world for spending on student-welfare services such as housing, meals, health care, and transportation, a category of spending that the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] lumps together under ‘ancillary services.’” She notes that American taxpayers and families “spend about $3,370 on these services per student -- more than three times the average for the developed world.”

The growth of such services reflects the fact that undergraduate education has become responsible for the full scope of student -- or, better said, human -- needs. The rationale is that higher education is not just about the transference of knowledge and skill. It’s also about nurturing informed citizens who gain necessary experience in a residential setting by interacting daily and inescapably with diverse people, practicing leadership and team skills through out-of-class activities, discovering their definition through self-reliance, and gaining understanding and empathy toward others.

That conviction was not always inevitable, however. At least one Founding Father of the nation and early leader of education policy had a different view, albeit at a different time in the nation’s history with students from a different demographic attending college. Benjamin Rush, a physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence and founder of three colleges, unequivocally warned that students should not live in close proximity to each other on a college campus but rather with families in the surrounding community. He suggested that residential living would only lead to student mischief, bad habits antithetical to becoming a good citizen through artificial “sheltering” from the greater community, and a corresponding lack of appreciation of the variety of life beyond college.

As evidenced by Ripley’s account of the money undergraduate colleges and universities spend on nonacademic activities, supportive and ancillary services to students are now major contributors to the cost of American higher education. And some people would argue that those various services, as necessary and well intended as they might be, have a significant downside: they shield students far too much from those experiences of success and failure that, in fact, yield informed, self-reliant citizens who can at once possess independent judgment and interact productively and compassionately with others.

Thus, debate is needed as to whether students and their families should have the option of attending a different sort of college -- one focused primarily upon academics and, therefore, not requiring families to pay for support services as part of an all-inclusive tuition from a single provider. Given the changes the pandemic has wrought, it’s time to consider whether this kind of unbundling, especially post-COVID, would make sense.

Students enrolled in institutions that decide to offer only academics would live in the community, eat at local establishments and make use of existing community services related, for example, to health, wellness and fitness. They would not source these services within the confines of the college. Colleges that decide not to provide such services would offer financial assistance to any students who desire or need community or privately-sourced services but cannot afford them. By offering assistance to qualified students, institutions would differ from community colleges, which are primarily commuter but do not offer such support for a wide range of community services.

The timing might be especially good: with many students remaining in their home communities this fall to engage in online education, the need for students to turn to local communities as a resource for learning has intensified. And were students to continue with their education partially or fully online post-COVID, they potentially could take advantage of support services in any college community across the country. Such support services, offered by community organizations, would be open to any student regardless of degree-granting institution.

To derive further revenue, colleges and universities could then repurpose the excess space available due to the relinquishing of nonacademic services. They could offer, for example, mixed student/community/retiree housing, which might break the age-stage stranglehold on education that arbitrarily forfeits the possibility of generations learning from each other. They could also open restaurants to the community as well as athletic facilities at a fee as local fitness and wellness centers. Current student centers could serve as community centers.

Certain colleges and universities that focus on academics could still choose to maintain some of their own support services that directly benefit students, such as libraries, research and programs supporting academic success -- especially for those students who are first generation or from cultural backgrounds not historically included in college and thus not familiar with navigation and coping strategies.

International Precedents

That a college or university would concentrate exclusively on academics and direct academic support services is not unprecedented internationally. European universities have principally offered academics for centuries and left student life and support services to organizations independent of a particular university. (Although, of course, European high school graduates often begin university study a year or two later than American students.) For example, the nonprofit Studentenwerke in Germany, founded in 1921 as a “self-help” entity, now provides nonacademic services by running university cafeterias and dormitories and providing a federal tuition-assistance program to finance enrollment at universities or trade schools through grants and loans.

Innovative “community extension” programs are already emerging in the U.S. and globally. AARP highlights a program for students from Drake University in Iowa who live in residence at nearby Deerfield Senior Living and another “artist in residence” initiative by the Cleveland Institute of Music at a senior living campus in Ohio. Students generally receive free room and board for a range of services to the senior living communities.

The Economist has also reported on a “community-extension” experiment in place since 2012 in Deventer, Holland. Six university students are living with 150 elderly residents at a senior care facility. They receive free housing in exchange for 30 hours of their time being “a good neighbor.” Citing one particular example, the reporter concludes, “Both parties appear to benefit from the programme. Mr. Duman [a student] estimates that he saved over … [$11,200] in rent. He claims that living in a care home has not impinged on his university experience.”

The benefits of an academic-focused model go far beyond financial. Faculty members might take larger roles in mentoring students in ways now reserved almost exclusively for student life staff -- intensely plumbing their respective subject areas for general life lessons for students. Academic subjects, particularly literature and history, were historically considered sources for life lessons, of course, but such an application fell out of favor at colleges and universities in about the mid-20th century. But it perhaps did not fall out of favor with the public, potentially explaining people’s growing questioning of the value of higher education.

Molly Worthen underscored this point in a piece in The New York Times, “The Anti-College Is On the Rise,” that describes the growing number of initiatives responding to students seeking what they are not finding at traditional colleges and universities. “Perhaps the proliferation of programs like these will push mainstream universities to recover the moral component of their mission,” she noted, “and to recognize that what students need -- far more than gourmet dining hall food or fancier classroom technology -- is a period of discipleship, a time of discernment.”

If colleges were to provide only academics and direct academic services, we would probably see the emergence of a cottage industry nationally or regionally distributed, offering directly to students or to colleges (potentially through partnerships) housing, financial and other analytic services, dining, health care, mental health counseling, alumni management, and career counseling. These organizations might even deliver nonacademic support services in highly controversial areas such as admissions and sports.

Of course, this approach will not be appropriate for all colleges and universities -- nor should it be. Many colleges and universities, because of wealth, brand and commitment to the traditional model of a residential college, would continue to offer their own comprehensive academic and nonacademic services just as they do today. Others without such wealth and brand might still opt to offer comprehensive services because their student body needs considerable intervention simply to succeed and those institutions believe only they can provide it.

In the end, the reinvention of undergraduate education post-COVID is ultimately about expectations -- institutions’ expectations of purpose and what it means to educate a diverse population and an evolving workforce without overextending their financial and management capacities. It’s also about students and families’ re-evaluation of their expectations of colleges and universities to educate for what they value in their lives and professions.

Historically, American higher education has distinguished itself by offering students and their families an array of options to obtain an education. What this commentary raises for debate is but another model of undergraduate education that could help students and their families obtain an education suitable to their ambitions and at a price they can afford -- and also allow financially stressed colleges and universities to reinvent themselves and survive.

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