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A Modest Proposal

January 28th, 2013 by dfarish

Readers of this blog are aware of my none-too-subtle concerns with wealthy campuses that do not exemplify best practices: rather than use their wealth to lower their sticker prices and create greater affordability for more prospective students, they have done just the opposite – they have raised their tuition prices and increased their already obscene levels of per-student expenditures.

But it is more than just a few well-known campuses behaving badly. At a time when American families are only too aware that colleges have become less and less affordable, the underlying cause of this unaffordability is the skewed distribution of revenue to institutions of higher learning in general.

More than one-third of all undergraduates are enrolled in two-year colleges. Some are focused on a two-year degree, but many of them plan to transfer to a four-year school and earn their baccalaureate. This is the least expensive level of higher education, with annual tuition generally around $3,000 – and it is the low cost that has led to swelling enrollments in community colleges.

Should Price Reflect Cost? (Part 2)

January 21st, 2013 by dfarish

In Part I of this post, we discussed how the “high cost/high aid” model of price and cost in higher education has led to growing educational debt and a widening achievement gap between affluent and low-income students. This week, we’ll talk about how (and why) to change this model.

But first: consider the following hypothetical conversation between an admissions officer and two prospective students, as he explains the college’s financial aid policy:

Should Price Reflect Cost? (Part 1)

January 14th, 2013 by dfarish

In a major front-page, above-the-fold article on Sunday, 23 December, The New York Times told of the widening gap in college completion rates for high-income versus low-income students. The Times illustrated the broader story with specific examples, including one of a student who was admitted to Emory University on what she thought was a full-need scholarship – but, because of problems in completing her financial aid forms, she arrived to find she had no institutional aid, and needed to borrow $40,000 just to enroll for her first year. Ultimately, her financial problems reached the point where her grades suffered, and she was suspended in her senior year. She now has an educational debt of almost $60,000, but no degree.

Turning Grinches into Santas

January 7th, 2013 by dfarish

In my last post, I criticized wealthy campuses for focusing too much on the size of their endowments and the returns on their investments, and not enough on making their campuses financially accessible to more students. In this post, I will suggest why they strayed, and why it is important that they rediscover a more socially useful path.

It all begins with an analysis of mission and purpose. Private colleges were established in this country to meet the need of various religious denominations to prepare members of the clergy here in the colonies, rather than having to import them from Europe. A number of institutions still retain their religious affiliation, although very few of them limit their educational efforts to the preparation of clergy. However, most private colleges today have at best a distant relationship to a particular religious denomination, or have become entirely secular, and their educational programs have expanded dramatically to include all of the traditional arts and sciences, and very often professional programs as well.

Colleges: Grinches or Santas?

December 21st, 2012 by dfarish

In my previous post, I noted the diametrically opposed reactions of some colleges and universities to the public’s rising concerns regarding the cost of a college education, and the ballooning debt taken on by a growing number of students and their families.

The large majority of both public and private institutions are tweaking what I believe to be a broken model: they are seeking to increase financial aid while looking for ways of economizing, but, while well intentioned, these are at best temporary bandages on a severe wound. Moreover, these solutions are not sustainable, and, in their efforts to economize, these campuses risk being perceived as cutting the quality of their educational offerings.

Too Rich To Be Generous?

December 17th, 2012 by dfarish

In the last few months, a number of the wealthiest colleges and universities in the country have been reconsidering the level of their financial aid. Paradoxically, their intent is not to increase their financial aid, but to reduce it. How do we reconcile societal concerns regarding the rising costs of higher education (and the corresponding rise in student debt) with the decision by wealthy colleges to spend less on student aid? What is going on?

Let’s turn the clock back about 30 years. In the early 1980s, there were, by today’s standards, only a handful of wealthy colleges and universities. Top-tier universities such as Duke and Brown had endowments of less than $150 million. Even at Harvard, endowment drawdown and annual giving contributed only a minor portion of the annual operating budget. And yet, as a fraction of median family income, the cost of college then was significantly more affordable than it is today.

Having One’s Cake, and Eating It, Too

December 10th, 2012 by dfarish

In my last post, I posed the dilemma of how a campus could freeze tuition (as Roger Williams University has chosen to do), thereby eliminating a logical source of new revenue, without somehow causing damage to the quality of the students’ educational outcomes. Isn’t it the case that “you get what you pay for” – and if you pay less, doesn’t that ensure that you will receive less?

Of course, most people recognize that the quoted statement is overly simplistic. A person can spend anywhere from about $15,000 to more than $200,000 for a new car, but most people don’t think that it is worth it to spend extravagantly on a car, if their primary goal is just to have reliable transportation. Similarly, one can purchase a perfectly respectable bottle of wine for $10 to $20, although it is also possible to spend more than $200 for a grand cru from Burgundy. Is that bottle worth 10 or 20 times the first bottle? As a practical matter, not to most people.

How to Get Off the Merry-Go-Round

December 3rd, 2012 by dfarish

A recent analysis showed that the median family income in America, adjusted for inflation, has fallen to levels not seen since 1995. The median inflation-adjusted tuition sticker price at America’s private colleges and universities, however, has grown by more than 50 percent since 1995. The consequence, even with increases in institutional aid, is that a substantially smaller fraction of the population is able to afford today’s prices than was true in 1994.

How have we arrived at this undesirable – and, I would suggest, unacceptable – outcome?

Well, there are several reasons. Higher education is an inherently costly enterprise, and there are few economies of scale: doubling class size, for example, would save money, but it would come at the expense of a personalized learning environment – the primary selling point of private higher education.

Affordable Excellence – A Call to Action for Higher Education

October 24th, 2012 by dfarish

Last Friday, the latest edition of TIME Magazine hit newsstands across America with a cover that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago – one blurb previewing the “Reinventing College” issue proclaimed, “Our Exclusive Poll: 80% Think College Isn’t Worth the Money.”

Newsweek – before last week’s news on the move to all-digital – actually beat TIME to the punch, asking on its September 17 issue, “Is College a Lousy Investment?