Gas station without pumps

2013 February 2

We need low-cost colleges

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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In an opinion piece for the NY Times, My Valuable, Cheap College Degree, Arthur C. Brooks relates an anecdote of his own education: failing out of college his first year, taking a gap decade, going back to school through low-cost correspondence courses from various state universities,  eventually getting a PhD, and becoming a professor and president of a “Washington research organization”.  (I’d be more impressed if I thought he meant a biotech or computer research job in Seattle, but I fear he means a political hack job in DC.)

His anecdote sounds like a classic “self-made man” story, but is actually about the substantial state subsidies for college education that were available 40 years ago, and that are fast disappearing under the current political belief that government should pay for nothing but guns and people to use them (the state budget in California is heavily weighted toward prison guards and police).

I’m in basic agreement that college has gotten ridiculously expensive—I would welcome a low-cost college education for my son like the one I got back in the 1970s.  Unfortunately, I don’t expect to see state governments coming to their senses in time, and I may have to send my son to a private college to get an adequate education.  (Currently his short list of about 20 schools is almost equally divided between public and private colleges and universities, but most of the public universities are out of state, raising their costs to the same level as the private ones.)

I expect that my son’s education is likely to cost me 2 or 3 years of my salary as a full professor (and that’s pre-tax salary). I’ve been saving 10% of my salary each year for the past 16 years in order to be able to pay for that education for my son, so we should be able to do it without his going into debt, which is good, since I’ll probably be retiring while he’s still in grad school.

The fact that the ratio of college tuition and fees to professorial salary is so high tells me that the cost is not due to high salaries for faculty (and I’m one of the lucky tenured faculty—most colleges are dominantly hiring “contingent” faculty now, who have no job security, low pay, and no voice in the running of the institution).  Other studies have show that the cost of public universities has not changed much—it’s just been shifted from the state to the student. In particular, the socially desirable subsidy of tuition for low-income students is almost entirely born by “return to aid” funding from other students, not from endowments or state subsidies.

Private colleges have had enormous increases in costs: largely related to the debt acquired in the amenities wars and the obscene salaries they pay their administrators and football coaches (though not their professors, who are only slightly better paid than public-university professors like me).

I don’t see online education as being a major cost saver in providing decent quality education.  Massive lecture classes are the least effective courses at the university (though relatively cheap to offer) and MOOCs just amplify the problem.  Those completing MOOCs are mostly the older, highly motivated students who have always been fairly easy to teach—there’s not much evidence that MOOCs are at all effective at educating the run-of-the-mill students who are the current main target of college education efforts.

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