Want to Reduce The Price of College?

Hey You! Want to Reduce The Price of College?

I don’t set college tuition, determine the share of taxpayer funds applied to my education or get a say in what counts as a college degree. What can I do?

Turns out, quite a lot. This isn’t hopey-changey stuff anymore. Today, unlike anytime since the medieval dawn of the college concept, the supply of colleges willing to enroll students far exceeds the demand from students. Concurrently, with the explosion of distance education, students can choose from thousands of colleges rather than just the ones within driving or walking distance. These two attributes – a robust set of providers and ease of consumer choice – give students previously unheard of purchasing power.

Purchasing power? Colleges have a sticker-price, but won’t tell me what my true cost is until after admission. Not only that, but additional fees, unanticipated tuition hikes and unknown time to degree completion (not to mention politically preferred categories of colleges that receive taxpayer subsidies) make it impossible to compare college prices.

It is a shame that colleges will not provide accurate and comparable “all-in” price estimates before enrollment. However, since many colleges charge on a per-credit basis, there are other ways to use your purchasing power. Many elements of a college degree are exactly the same from college to college. How different can a large lecture based Psychology 101 or Calculus I course be? The existence and growth of statewide articulation agreements among public colleges is a testament to the commoditized nature of the first two years of college. As tuition at public universities has gone up due to state funding reductions, availability of private loans has gone down due to the recession, and personal wealth has gone down, more and more students are enrolling in community colleges with the intent to transfer to four year colleges. Further, dual enrollment programs – earning college credit while in high school – have dramatically expanded as well.

This is all well and good, but even community college is expensive, and getting more so. Also, despite what colleges say about transfer programs, colleges make it difficult to actually transfer credit. A college may say it awards transfer credit, but the credit will not count it toward my major or the grade will not count in my GPA. Also, a college may not be willing to tell me if it will award transfer credit until after I enroll or it may wait for weeks before it gives me an answer. Why is that?

There is good news and bad news. First, the bad news… Colleges don’t really want you to bring credits to their college. Every credit you bring is one less credit that they can sell you. With a revenue model built on the delivery of courses, but with the power to assess a course’s validity, colleges have an inherent conflict of interest to pronounce courses taken elsewhere as inferior to their own. Now, the good news… This is where your newfound purchasing power can make a difference. Because students can take courses from thousands of providers and colleges are competing with each other for students, particularly the very profitable online students, colleges are forced to take credits from more sources than ever before. Colleges are more willing to take credits from elsewhere so that they can receive the revenue from whatever is left of that student’s education. Not only will colleges accept credit from other colleges, but they will also accept credit from other sources such as high schools offering dual enrollment programs, providers of courses that have been recommended by the American Council on Education’s Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit) like StraighterLine (the company that I run), students that can demonstrate prior learning in alternative settings such as CAEL’s Learning Counts initiative, and others.

I’ve never heard of these other sources for courses. How do I know whether my college will accept credit from them?

This is where you can be a smart consumer of higher education. When researching a college to attend, find out their credit recognition and articulation policies. If the policies are confusing or not easily found, call the registrar and ask. Make it clear that the college’s credit recognition policy is a factor in your enrollment decision. Ultimately, enroll in a college that will let you bring the most credits into the process. This will bring down the overall price of your education, speed your time to degree, and give you greater flexibility in scope and sequence. Below are questions and answers that you can expect to hear.

Why is this so complicated?

Good question… Perhaps the higher education regulatory and financing system was built to benefit colleges rather than students?

Questions for Students To Ask:

  • Will you award credit from providers recognized by the American Council on Education’s Credit Recommendation Service or for validated prior learning assessment?
    • Yes, we accept all courses that have been reviewed by a recognized third party or that have been reviewed by our own faculty.
      • Great. You are a transfer friendly school! I’ll be telling my friends about you. Can you tell me exactly what will show up on my transcript for this course?
    • Yes, but on a case-by-case basis.
      • How is credit determined? How long will it take? Can you give me an answer before I enroll?
    • Yes, but we won’t give you credit toward your major.
      • Why not? Isn’t the content of this course essentially the same as the one that you offer? Why does it matter whether I take the course online, offline, with a cohort or in a self-paced format?
    • Yes, but we won’t count the grade awarded toward your GPA.
      • Why not? Given rampant grade inflation, it’s unlikely that your grading scale is more rigorous than grading elsewhere.
    • No, we only recognize credit from other regionally accredited colleges.
      • Accreditors do not review courses, only institutions. Further, the variance in quality among institutions, course quality within institutions, and section quality within courses is enormous. Since accreditation provides no information about the validity of an individual course, why do you use this as your standard?

Questions for State and Local Policymakers to Ask Colleges

  • Why are online courses priced the same as face-to-face courses since online courses have so much less overhead?
  • Why won’t you award equivalent credit for equivalent coursework, no matter where or how the course is taken?
  • What are the direct instructional costs to deliver general education courses? What is the total revenue – taxpayer funds, tuition and fees -- that a state receives for each course?