Last summer I testified before the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on the subject of student activity fees and suggested that one way state lawmakers can appropriately seek to rein in college costs for students would be to make student activity fees at public institutions non-mandatory (by allowing students to opt-out of such fees). Of course, some fees should be non-mandatory (in the sense that they depend exclusively on the student’s decision to matriculate), for example, a fee collected to pay for library services. But some fees, particularly athletics fees, are only ancillary to the academic mission than are library fees. As I put it in my testimony, an institution can be a good university without a football team; it is impossible to be one without a library (even if it is only in a digital form, I might add). The latest news on student athletics fees at the University of New Mexico is a further illustration of the propriety of making these fees non-mandatory.
In their way, remedial courses are as close to purely competency-based as anything we do. It’s just that we insist on shoving them into our semester structures. Wouldn’t MOOCs make absolutely wonderful supplements for developmental classes, especially in math?
The news that Cooper Union will, effective 2014, charge undergraduates tuition (the school, with a sticker price of $40,250, automatically offers all undergraduate students a full-tuition scholarship) puts that school in the same camp as others that face protests over their decisions to increase tuition. Because of Cooper Union’s venerable tradition of charging students no tuition, however, the shift is far more significant than the school that increases tuition by 4 percent next year, just like it did last year.
The reports on this story note a number of possible causes for Cooper Union’s decision. One relates to rising faculty costs and holds that, as costs to hire and retain quality rise (through no fault of the school), the financial constraints on the school left it with no option but to seek a new source of revenue. On the flip side, others note that Cooper Union has seen at least some growth in administration, and cost drivers that are caused by administrative expansion certainly remain within the institution’s control. Both of those stories contain some measure of truth.
What I found most interesting about this story, though, was an aside in the New York Times:
Last year, Cooper Union hired a consulting firm to consider the effect of collecting tuition from undergraduates. (Officially the college lists a price of $38,500 a year, but extends to all students what it calls a full-tuition scholarship.)
The firm advised against reducing the scholarships by more than 25 percent. Anything beyond that, it said, would weaken the applicant pool and arouse expectations for costly amenities that the college does not offer. (emphasis added)
I’m reminded of the remark Claudia Dreifus (co-author of the book Higher Education?) once made when she recounted anecdotal evidence from prospective students’ visits to colleges: the parents were asking about the quality of amenities on campus, but never about the quality of classroom instruction. When the people pay the tuition bills ask for it, it is hard not to pin at least a smidgen of blame on them for rising college costs. Don’t just blame the highly paid administrators; it seems that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
President Obama’s proposal on Wednesday to tie student loan interest rates to government borrowing costs has received opposition from some who usually support the president’s higher-education initiatives. The immediate effect would decrease the interest rates on loans, but probably increase in the long run, as The Atlantic illustrates. However, instead of focusing on whether the proposal would increase or decrease interest rates, policymakers should question the conventional wisdom about expanding loans to more students.
When it’s acknowledged that about four in 10 college students don’t finish their degrees within six years, keeping interest rates low and widely available isn’t benevolent policy for students so much as trapping them in debt with no degree to justify it. The debate about student-loan rates needs to move beyond motives and focuses on policy outcomes; until then, the unintended effects will be ignored and “student advocates” will continue to harm them. Students should have options beyond college and high levels of debt, and to assume college holds the only path to success stinks of elitism and denigration of alternative pathways.
Interest rates shouldn’t be kept artificially low to encourage more students; they should reflect market risk and opportunity cost so students don’t blindly choose college. The easy money for college students feeds higher spending and tuition by colleges and universities; why worry about restraining costs when students can always find the money to pay? The efficiency of the student-loan program as a whole is questionable; if the desirable policy goal aims to benefit college students, the student-loan program might not even meet that standard.
Barry Mills, the President of Bowdoin College, makes what to me is a slightly curious remark in the course of responding to a recent report on the college published by the National Association of Scholars. Mills takes issue with the NAS report’s characterization of the college’s curriculum (since I haven’t read the report myself, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Mills’ reading of the report). In response Mills says the following:
Yes, there are some courses offered at Bowdoin that come with provocative titles…
In my view, the title and course description are what get you in the door… (emphasis in original)
In other words, course titles and descriptions are merely the academic form advertising. But I thought that advertising in higher education was to be frowned upon. Or is that only in the case when the institution doing the advertising is owned by a for-profit entity? If only the University of Phoenix had thought to style itself the “University of Advanced Gender Studies,” they would not have raised the ire of Senator Harkin. Or maybe advertising per se is fine as long as it isn’t billed as “advertising.”
A few prominent media hits for CCAP during the past week or two:
- In a special project on student loans, The Guardian uses CCAP research for statistics on student-loan debt, underemployment, and related information.
- The Huffington Post reports on college graduates working minimum-wage jobs and underemployment.
- The Philadelphia Daily News references CCAP for an article on student debt and collegiate athletics spending surrounding the NCAA basketball tournament.
- The Wall Street Journal reports on the financial burden of collegiate athletics spending for all but a few sports programs in higher education.
- Russia Today writes an article about underemployment based on CCAP’s recent study.
Students and parents, upon receiving financial-aid award letters, can have difficulty in comprehending it. A discussion may ensue about whether financial-aid administrators model themselves after Kafkaesque bureaucrats, or if colleges are in such a bubble that they imagine the letters easy to understand.
As Insider Higher Ed reports, a study by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators finds that most parents and students have difficulty deciphering how much they owe for college out-of-pocket; from 23 percent to 42 percent could answer the question after reading one of three proposed templates, depending upon which was given.
It’s important to note that, of the templates, only one has been adopted (the Education Department’s “shopping sheet”), which about 500 colleges use.
In general, colleges and universities have difficulty with transparency, but it’s particularly difficult to justify when students can’t understand the price of a higher education. True, an award letter isn’t synonymous with a bill, but when the letter doesn’t show a direct, simple connection to the cost of attending college, universities should re-evaluate their approach to providing information.
For anyone in or near Minnesota, Richard Vedder will speak at Minnesota State University-Mankato, April 9 (Tuesday), on “The Value of an American College Education: Student Engagement, Retention, and Success.” The lecture begins at 6 p.m.; it’s free and open to the public.
Kevin Kiley’s profile for InsideHigherEd of Purdue University’s new President, Mitch Daniels is well worth the read.
In their paper, “Measuring Baumol and Bowen Effects in Public Research Universities,” Robert Martin and R. Carter Hill present cost data for public research universities in the United States. They break the cost data into two broad categories: academic costs (which they define as spending on instruction, research and public service) and overhead costs (which includes spending on academic support, student services, institutional support, plant operations/maintenance, auxiliary activities, hospitals, and independent operations). They examine spending growth over two periods: 1987 to 2008 and 2008 to 2010. They use the former period to gauge the long-run spending trends in higher education (at least for the past twenty years) while they use the latter period to assess institutions’ responses to the financial crisis and recession. The average annual growth rates in the spending categories are given in the following chart.
These data show that from 1987 t0 2008, costs increased across the board: total spending increased by 2.1 percent per year, with 1.8 percent annual increases in academic costs but 2.5 percent increases in overhead costs. Because overhead costs were increasing at a faster rate than academic costs, the academic share of total costs fell slightly from 49 percent to 48 percent from 1987 to 2008. However, following the 2008 financial crisis, there was an “abrupt” break in spending trends: while academic costs increased 8.2 percent per year, overhead costs actually declined by 6.1 percent per year. Because total costs increased by 0.5 percent per year from 2008 to 2010, academic costs as a share of total costs rose from 48 percent to 55 percent in 2010.