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Innovation and Affordability in Higher Education

Recently, college tuition increases have begun to outpace the rate of inflation, and the aggregate impact of tuition increases, coupled with increased use of fees have resulted in United States student loan debt that exceeds the country’s credit card debt. These factors leave many wondering whether the cost of higher education can be recouped by subsequent employment.  More broadly from a social perspective, it raises the question of what the actual value of the degree students aspire to attain is, and what the actual costs are to educate an undergraduate student.

An article in a recent issue of The Economist examines this kind of question and proffers a list of proposed cuts to help universities balance their budgets, but this article will focus on just two of the points discussed: separating research from teaching, and finding alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar styles of lecture delivery.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education noted a tension between the priorities as perceived by university faculty and the priorities some congressional stakeholders feel university researchers and faculty should have.  The article notes that legislators advocate for colleges to cut costs by increasing the teaching load of their professorate; however, faculty argue that evaluating the value of a professor based on the amount of time they spend in a classroom, or the number of undergraduates they lecture to in a semester does not accurately take into account the way that many uiversities’ top research and instructional faculty spend their time, or effective evaluate their output.  Critics of this system, typically nonacademics, argue that teaching has become too low a priority for University educators, whose primary responsibility should be the education of undergraduates. The aforementioned Economist article argues that University research is a public good for which the students are baring an undue proportion of the cost.

However, when one factors out the cost of research, which should be funded primarily by research grants, questions arise about the actual value of a University degree as measured by the employability of their alumnus- a question that has historically been difficult to determine because Universities have been reluctant to collect and share that kind of information (but as we noted a few weeks ago, this is something that legislators are beginning to pay more attention to). Accordingly, ideas have surfaced concerning ways to make educating students more affordable. The University of Texas is discussing a $10,000 undergraduate degree, and Oklahoma State University’s Vance Fried recently conducted a thought experiment and concluded that undergraduates can be educated effectively for just under $7000.

Another idea that has surfaced and is beginning to gain traction is Shai Reshef’s University of the People which uses the abundance of available opencourseware, and the generosity of willing professors to provide an undergraduate education for the nominal cost of processing the application. This idea has yet to gain accreditation, but it is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that can lead to innovations in higher education.

These ideas are only a sampling of the potentially game changing proposals that are being generated in the higher education space, and is something we will continue to monitor as more and more intuitions attempt to make their university practices more sustainable.  

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