New Report Proposes Solutions for Rising College Costs

Barry Lenson

New Report Proposes Solutions for Rising College Costs

“Opportunities for Efficiency and Innovation: A Primer on How to Cut College Costs,” a new report by Vance H. Fried from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, lays out a proposal for how colleges can cut operating expenses and become more affordable.

Unlike other studies, this report doesn’t blame excessive college costs on hot tubs, spa-like health clubs, landscaping or other unnecessary “extras.” Fried maintains that colleges cost too much because they have not found cost-effective ways to deliver instruction.

Here are the remedies that he suggests:

1. Eliminate or separately fund research and public service
2. Optimize class size
3. Eliminate or consolidate low-enrollment programs
4. Eliminate administrator bloat
5. Downsize extracurricular student activity programs

To demonstrate how all those ideas could work efficiently, Fried writes about a theoretical college called the College of Entrepreneurial Leadership & Society (CELS). It’s a kind of utopian model for how an efficient, cost-minimized educational institution could function.  “My guiding design principle for CELS was never spend money unless the resulting additional student benefit is clearly greater than the additional cost,” he writes.  He also believes that “venture philanthropy,” in which entrepreneurs invest in colleges, could hold a key to making colleges more productive and cost-efficient.

What does the author think about online instruction? “From a faculty productivity standpoint,” he writes, “online delivery is currently only better than place-based delivery in small classes.” He also writes that online classes lose effectiveness in larger classrooms – but (somewhat paradoxically) can achieve big savings in lecture classes.

The report is indeed thought-provoking. But its author seems to adhere to the traditional model of colleges and universities that have dormitories, classroom buildings, lecture halls, athletic teams, and all the other building blocks that make up “brick and mortar” institutions of higher education. Because he is using that framework, he doesn’t ask questions like these . . .

  • What would happen if students only lived on campus for two or three years, and studied online the rest of the time?
  • Could colleges become more efficient by offering three-year degree programs, as some colleges have?
  • How can colleges serve larger populations, such as members of the U.S. military, working parents, and other non-traditional students who now make up a significant portion of America’s student population?
  • How could colleges increase their geographical reach – and earning potential – by delivering online instruction to students who live far from their campuses?
  • Where do environmental and educational concerns meet? And can’t a “greener” institution without parking lots, heating bills, garbage to recycle and the rest also be less expensive to attend?
  • Could colleges partner together to maximize their faculty efficiency and reduce the cost of tuition?

When you widen the lens to consider issues like those, a new range of cost-cutting solutions becomes possible. But within the framework he has chosen, Fried’s report is thought-provoking indeed.

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