In the past few days we’ve heard much from President Obama, his many surrogates and even Steve Forbes about the need to control the cost of higher education in order to make it more accessible students from all socio-economic backgrounds. The case is that higher education is a national imperative and essential to economic upward-mobility.
I certainly agree with the need to ensure access and I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that higher education is a national and economic imperative. (You know, a BUT is coming, right?).
But, price controls and complex formulas developed by the federal government to determine who are the good and bad guys are in this enterprise are simply crazy ideas.
While there are certainly examples of egregious spending in higher education, the examples are fairly modest. However, when one listens to the rhetoric of today, one might conclude that all of higher educations is involved in predatory behavior and is spending tuition revenue like drunken sailors (or like the federal government if you are a real cynic) on unneeded extravagances.
The rhetoric is misplaced. At most colleges, particularly private colleges, tuition dollars are spent on the people who deliver the educational program (inside and outside the classroom) and to those. Higher education is, as my friend Randy Trostle said, a “high-touch” and “high-tech” endeavor. Resources are spent on the faculty who teach and advise and administrators and staff who serve and support. Resources go to people.
High-touch, in particular, costs money!!!
When President Obama, his surrogates and Steve Forbes call for controlling college costs, what they are really asking colleges to do is cheapen the education and experience of college-bound students. They are calling for “cheaper and faster.” They are calling for larger classes, more online learning and a greater focus on content delivery.
They are also calling on higher education to cut it’s workforce because that’s where much of the high cost is (i.e. paying people, providing benefits, etc).
This is short-sighted and in my view higher education is nothing more than a convenient target in a world that wants a straw man to beat up on. This push also seems to neglect much about what we know about effective and impactful education. The emphasis on content, delivered cheaper and faster…sort of like and ATM will not be sufficient to prepare our next generation of leaders.
It is exactly the practices that are expensive to deliver (i.e. internships, hands-on learning in laboratories, athletics, music, residential living, study abroad, small classes, writing intensive curriculum, advising done by faculty, and many others) that develop the skills graduates need to be successful in life and leadership. It is often through these experiences, rather than simply memorizing and consuming content, that graduates develop broad perspective, the critical and creative thinking, communication, problem-solving, analyzing, and life skills, as well as the ability to work with a team. It is these skills at attributes that are frequently cited by employers are being far more important that content memorization.
I agree that colleges and universities need to do their part and should continue to try to cut core costs. Colleges must also continue to expand financial assistance, either through discounts or funded financial assistance, in order to be accessible to all students. But, the idea that “cheaper and faster” is better is nuts and it’s not an improvement.
If cheaper and faster was so great why is that so many politicians send their own children to expensive private high schools in Washington D.C. If cheaper and faster was the way to go, why don’t the Obama girls learn online from the comfort and safety of the White House?
Because we all know, even those politicians and others threatening colleges, that cheaper and faster is not adequate to prepare one for a lifetime of success.
What do you think of the messages coming out of Washington D.C. Is cheaper and faster the way we need to go? I am not ready to make the leap to marketing cheaper and faster. Convince me otherwise, I am listening.
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission
P.S. You may also want to read “Value” in higher ed is not “cheap and fast…”