Wither Colleges?

Fenster writes:

Blowhard Esq. advocates here that students consider college on a do it yourself basis.  That idea has a lot of appeal.  Here is a book on DIY University.  And the recent film on higher education, The Ivory Tower, has several interesting segments on do it yourself approaches, AKA hacking higher education.

We will see a lot more of this in the future I am sure but how much and how far in the future are questions that are yet up in the air.  Higher education has vast inertia and has mostly been successful to date in holding off the kinds of changes that have been breathlessly prophesized.   But while the future tends to come later than true believers initially predict, with the result that prophecies get discounted, come it will eventually, often catching people off-guard when it does.  Sometimes it comes in disguise, too, since inertia may spawn unexpected workarounds and mutations.

The largest factor holding back DIY approaches is the dominant theme in higher education today of credentialism.  If higher education were all about self-improvement–the old myth–then DIY would work just fine.  But nowadays it is mostly about presenting an employable package to the market, one that employers can understand in simple ways.  A Harvard degree means a very smart person, even if little education was imparted while residing in Cambridge.  Stanford Computer Science sends a different signal; Rhode Island School of Design another.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  I wrote here in 2012 (wow, ancient UR history) about what has been called alternative credentialing–essentially hacking the system by assembling merit badges.  The merit badges you assemble may or may not constitute a recognized degree from an accredited institution but if employers understand what the badges add up to, and if they value that package, you are employable.

Work continues apace on this.  But, per the above caution about the future never appearing as quickly as proselytizers confidently assert, here we are almost three and a half years after my post and things have not changed all that greatly.  People still rely on the simpler coding available from the US News rankings and from accreditation bodies (bodies which are, no surprise, constituted by the industry they regulate).

So if DIY will be delayed a bit more, what might be the vector of a more imminent change?  What mutation might develop that will be the new cutting edge?

Perhaps it will be an old-fashioned college, made new in certain key respects.

And I mean that term “old-fashioned” literally–i.e., the kind of college that used to exist that no longer does.  Mostly teaching.  Not that much of an emphasis on faculty research.  Little by way of general administration or student affairs.

A place like this can have facilities.  It can have a faculty.  It can be accredited.  So we would not be asking employers to take on the job of decoding a series of possibly unconnected merit badges that may or may not lead to something resembling a baccalaureate education.  But, like colleges of old, it would consciously strive to devote most of its resources to . . . . (drumroll) . . .  teaching! 

Teaching and instruction are the smaller part of the expenditure picture in higher education.  The Delta Cost Project does the most systematic job of analyzing what money is spent on in higher education.  Here is its most recent report, just out, that looks at higher education spending from 2010-2013.

The report acknowledges that instruction takes a back seat to other spending in many ways but puts the matter diplomatically as follows:

Educating students is the common thread that weaves across all colleges and universities, but it takes more than just faculty to run institutions. Student services (such as admissions, registrar services, and student counseling) are often key to a successful college experience. And other support functions (including academic and institutional support and operations and maintenance) contribute indirectly by providing an infrastructure that supports learning. Institutions may also engage in sponsored research and public service activities or in hosted auxiliary operations, such as food service, book stores, and sometimes even hospitals.

Note that while this language recognizes that of course it takes more than instruction to run a college, it is silent on whether all of those expenditures are needed or wise.  Perhaps there is an arms race for facilities.  Perhaps faculty aren’t spending enough time teaching.  Perhaps near universal education has spawned the felt need for large bureaucracies to handle new student needs and problems.  The Delta Cost Project mostly reports what it finds.

And what does it find?

Public and private four-year colleges and universities boosted spending on student services per FTE student by 2 to 4 percent in 2013, outpacing the instructional spending in terms of average growth (1 to 2 percent), but not the dollar amount invested . . .

The rise in student services spending is an ongoing trend. On many college campuses, the growth may reflect a greater emphasis on career counseling and academic advising by professional staff, as well as students’ expectations about access to campus mental health services. Student services was among the fastest growing spending categories during the prior decade—particularly at private institutions and selective public institutions, where spending per student increased by more than 20 percent between 2003 and 2013.

Spending on administrative and maintenance functions increased faster than instructional spending at many four-year institutions in 2013. In particular, academic support expenditures per student (e.g., libraries, information technology, deans’ offices) rose by an average of 3 percent or more . . .

Take the category of private bachelor’s colleges (please!)  While this category includes a wide variety of places with different costs and tuition levels, you probably have some feel for the high sticker price of private higher education.  But in this category, the Delta Cost Project reports that instruction costs per student are only about $9,000.  That is a fraction of tuition.

Where are the rest of the costs?  Take student services.  There the costs per student were fully half the amount of instruction, around $4,500.  But of course that’s not all.  Institutional support (non-academic overhead) costs were higher yet than student services, around $5,000.  And academic support (more overhead, but the running of the academic enterprise such as dean’s offices) came to over $2,000.  Ditto Operations and Maintenance.  All of these together come to over $25,000, of which the $9,000 on instruction in just a fraction.

Oh, and this does not include spending on things like public service, sponsored research and auxiliary enterprises like food service and dorms.  Those are other categories in the Delta scheme.

It’s all a more complicated picture than this small snapshot suggests, but the snapshot is suggestive nonetheless.

What this means is that in theory there is an opportunity out there for someone to actually build a new institution that sheds many of these costs.  Yes, consumers want the new rock climbing walls and fine dining and extra counseling services and so forth.  But they have never been given the option of the budget model!  A friend of mine is hard at work on the development of one of these colleges, and is pretty far down the road with the business model, the funding and the regulators.

That model suggests that a stripped down for action college is feasible at a tuition level of $8,000.  A new library is not needed if the college has sufficient journal privileges and an inexpensive contract to use the first-rate library of a nearby college.  Faculty will not be encouraged to vacate their classrooms to develop publications but the reverse: faculty will have beefed up teaching loads and will be evaluated mostly on teaching rather than research, which is the obsessive preoccupation of academics elsewhere.  Student affairs will be handled, but not with as much hand-holding, without excessive programming, and by relying on outsourcing things like counseling services.

If you build it, will they come?  Hard to say.  But there are a lot of parents out there who will think twice about a $40,000 price tag when there’s a model out there for under $10,000 that is as good, or even just nearly as good.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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4 Responses to Wither Colleges?

  1. I’m very much in tune with your thinking. My undergrad alma mater was Northwestern University, which has gone over to the dark side of international corporations. My grad school alma mater was U of Chicago which has sunk into research. But this morning I was looking at Blackfeet Community College which has done what you suggest: built from the ground up as needed with merit badges, kept close track of student costs, and also student results. I wonder whether Tribal Colleges might be a pattern for the future — a real surprise workaround. No one expects anything at all about Indians.


  2. jjbees says:

    Like the military, modern universities are pretty much jobs programs. That is their raison d’etre. They keep young adults from being “unemployed” while they can be classed as “student”, too.

    Education is only a secondary or tertiary goal. The metastasis of modern university education is a testament to this. Where will all the liberal arts professors, administrators, counselors, etc. go when the budget colleges out-compete them? I’m being kind of flip, but it is a serious problem.

    We don’t really have any need for the majority of our armed forces ever since the advent of nuclear weapons (meaning conventional total war was to become very unlikely), and yet the behemoth carries on due to the sustenance it provides those involved in it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Mid-January Curmudgeon Edition | Patriactionary

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