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Posted at 1:35 PM ET, 12/ 2/2010

25 ways to reduce the cost of college

By Daniel de Vise

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity has been periodically releasing bits and pieces of what will be a book-length compendium of 25 proposals to reduce the cost of college. Much of it is now available online.

I guess the title speaks for itself, and the 234-page manuscript wastes no time with introductions or executive summaries, jumping right into idea #1, Encourage More Students to Attend Community College.

For those who can't spare the time to give the full document its due, here's a much-condensed version. (I'm not necessarily agreeing with these ideas, mind you, merely endeavoring to explain them):

1. Encourage More Students to Attend Community College. Two-year colleges cost less than four-year schools.

2. Promote Dual Enrollment Programs. Students who earn college credit in high school save money in college.

3. Reform Academic Employment Policies. The gist of this item is that tenure is costly.

4. Offer Three-Year Bachelor's Degrees. Three years of college is cheaper than four.

5. Outsource More Services. Colleges lose money running their own food and lodging operations, rec centers and maintenance.

6. Reduce Administrative Staff. Administrative costs are soaring in academe.

7. Cut Unnecessary Programs. Nearly all academic programs run at a loss; colleges should weigh their costs against their benefits.

8. End the "Athletics Arms Race". The vast majority of intercollegiate athletic programs lose money and require subsidization.

9. Overhaul the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is criticized as needlessly complex and costly to administer.

10. Eliminate Excessive Academic Research. Faculty are under increased pressure to research and publish, at the cost of pedagogy.

11. Streamline Redundant Programs at the State Level.

12. Promote collaborative purchasing. Colleges could take advantage of purchasing cooperatives to save money.

13. Improve Facility Utilization. Colleges often use teaching spaces no more than 30 or 40 hours a week.

14. Increase Teaching Loads. The load of courses taught per faculty member has been in steady decline in recent decades.

15. Encourage Timely Degree Completion. Students who spend more time in college spend more and cost more.

16. Move More Classes Online. Online instruction is generally cheaper than brick-and-mortar classroom teaching.

17. Reduce the Cost of Textbooks. Textbook rental and online texts lower costs and increase competition.

18. Digitize Academic Libraries. Digitization could lower the rising costs of operating a library.

19. Outsource E-mail Services. Internal e-mail networks are increasingly expensive to maintain.

20. Utilize Course Management Tools. Online course management offers potential efficiencies and savings.

21. Ease the Transfer Process among Public Institutions. Impediments to transfer cost students in lost and duplicated credits.

22. Reform Financial Aid. This one is probably too big to summarize in a sentence. Apologies.

23. Reform Accreditation to Reduce Barriers to Entry. Ditto.

24. Subsidize Students, not Schools. States could steer subsidies from schools directly to students.

25. Promote Competition Based on Value, Not Reputation. The prevailing academic ranking system is based largely on factors other than bang for one's buck.

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By Daniel de Vise  | December 2, 2010; 1:35 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Aid, Athletics, Community Colleges, Facilities, Finance, Pedagogy, Public policy, Rankings, Technology  | Tags:  25 ways to reduce the cost of college, Center for College Affordability and Productivity, college costs, college finance, higher education costs  
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Here are my attempts to summarize numbers 22 and 23.

22. Withhold student financial information from colleges, so that colleges cannot base admission on income (or offer need-based aid, as most private colleges do, although this is not mentioned), and students can choose on sticker price rather than on the price net of financial aid.

23. Require accreditors to make public all information gathered on accredited institutions. Also, stop making it so hard for institutions to obtain initial accreditation.

None of these are terrible ideas, I guess. But the real driver of higher *prices* is the long decline in public financing of higher education, despite the words of those politicians who cut appropriations to higher ed and then turn around and attack colleges for being too pricey. And a primary unaddressed driver of higher *costs* in higher ed is the increase in what is taught; compared to the MD who graduated 40 or even 20 years ago, today's typical MD learned about more technologies in med school and even learned more about biology in Bio 101.

What is also odd about this set of recommendations is that it claims to value the processes of the free market, but to enhance the free market it calls for substantial intervention by the federal government.

Posted by: drrico | December 3, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

#24 probably would not have much effect. Students are already effectively subsidized through Pell Grants and Stafford Loans. This aid is, in part, administered through the schools, but it's still the students subsidized, and it may not be coincidence that the sharp rise in college costs ahead of the inflation rate began at just about the time that these subsidies were introduced. As long as colleges know that financially needy students have access to a certain amount of aid, they will price themselves accordingly. Without that guarantee of aid to everyone, colleges would probably be cheaper by about the same amount as students currently receive in federal aid.

What makes this doubly bad for students is that much of the aid comes in the form of loans, which then become an albatross around students' necks for years.

Posted by: blert | December 3, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

There are some interesting suggestions here, and then others than just don't make sense at all.

In the "say what?" category, I'd have to toss #16, moving more classes online. Just this past week, figures came out showing that the nation's for-profit schools, most of which rely heavily on online teaching, have graduation rates sinking as low as the single digits. For universities across the board, barely half of all students who start college actually complete their degrees, and if that figure goes down with more online classes, then the cheaper cost of administering the class is more than offset by the waste of students dropping out.

Plenty of studies show that students are much more likely to survive through college until graduation if they form strong connections with their professors and, importantly, with other students. Online courses haven't really managed to accomplish this degree of collaboration and interaction in most cases yet. Do online courses help students graduate more quickly? If they don't, then pursuing them could potentially undo some of the other goals cited on this list.

Also in the questionable column is #3, reforming employment policies to get rid of tenure. Yes, tenure can be costly in some cases. However, the flip side is having more and more adjunct faculty, the ranks of which are already burgeoning across the country. Adjuncts are often capable teachers, but they are also often overworked, underpaid, and, in many cases, pulled between teaching jobs on multiple campuses. The result is very little time to work with students, and the quality of education goes down. College prices have been skyrocketing despite this move toward adjuncts, and despite the ranks of tenured faculty thinning already, so the idea that tenure is a huge cost burden seems a bit mistaken. If tenure was more prevalent 30 or 40 years ago, but college cost less overall at that time, then it's hard to see how tenure is at fault for the rising costs.

On the other hand, I have to strongly agree with #5 and #6. A big part of the increase in college costs over the last 30 or so years has been colleges adding services, many of which enhance campus life, but are not central to the instructional core of the university. Seven out of 10 jobs at universities in America are now occupied by people who have nothing to do with instruction. Layers and layers of administration, added onto dozens and dozens of fringe services, programming events and activities, and other things that enhance the campus atmosphere has driven up costs. Some of these services and administrative roles may be worth keeping, but many of them exist solely to feed the beast. Administrative positions are created to assist administrators, and those positions in turn eventually need further administrative help. Why a university needs an administrator for every person in the classroom is beyond me, but this is almost what universities have become.

Posted by: blert | December 3, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

One item that is not on here is to reform the graduate school system. In a lot of ways, this relates to other items on the list, such as #10, excessive academic research, and #3, employment policies. Currently, large universities do not have the staff that they need in order to teach first-year courses, and much of this work is given to graduate students. As such, universities have continual need for more and more graduate students, even though the system does not have enough jobs for those students once they graduate. In the Humanities, fewer than half of the graduate students find tenure-track jobs upon graduation. Many end up going into non-academic jobs where their Ph.D.s are rendered at least partially irrelevant.

Top research universities have a decent record of placing graduate students into jobs, but outside of the top 25 schools in a field, the job placement rates become dismal, and yet there are still a hundred or so schools in many fields that have graduate programs.

Universities need to cut the number of graduate students that they accept in some fields by as much as a quarter or even half. The pressure to publish so much unnecessary research is borne out by the reality that the field is so awash with competition for jobs. If a person doesn't publish, there are at least two or three other people out there waiting to snag that job. Less competition for jobs means less pressure to publish, which also means more time available for teaching.

Granted, cutting the number of graduate students means requiring a few more faculty to teach freshman courses, and this will slightly raise costs since graduate students work cheap. However, with less pressure to publish freeing up more time to teach thanks to less competition in the job market, universities might actually end up with net savings.

Universities would also save, I think, from offering fewer graduate courses, which are hugely expensive to teach. Halving the number of graduate students in a field means freeing up hundreds of hours at a university for faculty to teach undergraduates. Just this one move of restricting the number of graduate students admitted nationwide could effectively bring about results on as many as half a dozen or more items on this list.

Posted by: blert | December 3, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

If we just gave them the degrees instead of expecting them to attend classes and learn something then they could really save money.

1,3,4,5,10,13,14,16,23,& 25 will only diminish the quality of the education students receive. #14 is an especially bad idea. Most faculty at most institutions are already overloaded.

Maybe someday an education is something everyone will see value in.

Posted by: pcallo | December 3, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

So, the suggestion to "Encourage More Students to Attend Community College" will 'only diminish the quality of the education students receive"? In what universe? Community colleges are as committed to academic excellence and integrative learning as any baccalaureate institution, and provide it with smaller class sizes, more individual student attention, and often the same faculty as are teaching at the universities around the corner. A community college provides an affordable first two years of a four-year degree, or two years of fundamentals needed to enter the job market. Plus they do it at a much lower overhead cost and with greater flexibility and responsiveness to community needs than any university can. We need to be incenting more students to attend our community colleges,l not scaring them away.

Posted by: matcat | December 3, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

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