Reflections on Costs in Christian Higher Ed

Rarely a day goes by without some commentary about the increasing costs of higher education, especially tuition. President Obama raised the issue in the State of the Union. Newspapers and blogs abound with concerns about college costs, student debt loads, and stress on parental expenses.

There have certainly been dramatic increases in college costs, especially when seen in the aggregate. Rates of tuition increase at public institutions have been dramatic over the past two decades as states shift public support to K-12 education and to corrections. The news coverage focuses almost exclusively on percentage increases and not on actual dollar amounts (it sounds more dramatic).

The costs of Christian Higher Education have also increased over this period. But it must be remembered that the vast majority of Christian colleges fall in the bottom half of the distribution of private school tuition rates.

But the public perception of private schools is one of tremendous costs. Some years ago at a conference I met some great folks from Bennington University in Vermont. Bennington has total costs of $60,000 per year. They have fewer than 900 students, a student faculty ratio of 9 to 1, an average class size of 14,  and a six year grad rate of 65%. This creates pressures for all four year private institutions.

Institutions I’ve served have student faculty ratios above 13 to 1, had average class sizes in the upper teens, and had six year grad rates in the mid 50s. But administrators, trustees, and parents worry about how the public will respond to increasing costs.

Popular solutions to cost increases seem to focus on technology-mediated solutions. From MOOCs originating from MIT and Standford to Bill Gates suggesting that computer interaction can create mentoring opportunities, there are calls to “increase efficiencies”. John Warner of McSweeney’s had this post in Inside Higher Ed that rightly observed how this flies in the face of what we want teaching and learning to be about.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the economics of supply and demand are supposed to push instructional costs down while allowing other cost sectors to increase. In some ways it can all be seen in terms of classic supply and demand. If we see the purpose of college as only related to job creation, then how we get to the outcome is less important. (By they way, the idea that today’s students are eager to learn through technology is anecdotal and generally unsupported. They’re far more likely to learn from the ever increasing numbers of low-wage adjunct instructors.)

At the same time, as competition between colleges has increased, pressures to support retention, technology, and student life have also increased. Why do colleges need recreational facilities with climbing walls and day spas? What’s the driver for ever increasing band-width? Why do we build fancy new residence halls? Why do our chapels need to look like mega-churches? Because keeping enrollment up in a highly competitive environment requires that kind of student amenity on an ever-escalating basis. (Strangely, new academic buildings are too often seen as luxuries we want deep pocket donors to build.)

Supply and demand becomes an issue especially when Christian universities don’t challenge the national assumptions about the role of a college education. If my university’s goals are identical to those of the local community college or even Michigan State, we’re already in serious competitive trouble. There is simply no way to cut costs enough to play on the same field with publicly supported institutions.

But if we clearly state our purposes and goals, then we’re competing in a different plane. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves to every degree program out there (certainly not the for-profits). It’s a matter of what one gets out of the experience provided.

There’s one more problem of supply and demand when it comes to college costs: we’re all competing for the same subset of the student population. We believe that the secret to success is to recruit the best and brightest of the high school graduates. But they are operating in a buyer’s market. They can play one school off against another and shop for the best tuition discount.

Sociologically, there are high degrees of correlation between high-school academic success and social class. Our move years ago from need based aid to merit based aid puts us at an economic disadvantage because we don’t have the resources to compete with the discounts at the elite schools.

Historically, faith-based colleges have drawn from a slightly lower socioeconomic level than is true for the Benningtons of the world (and, I believe, even the Michigan States). That is still a commendable mission. Given that the data still shows huge financial gains over a lifetime if one has a college degree, it’s hard to understand why we can’t make that message work.

As a life-long academic, I have to believe that there is competitive advantage in having the kind of academic, student life, and spiritual life experiences that allow students to see that the true costs of Christian higher education are more than worth it. While we should always be cautious about rapidly rising college costs, our conversations should be about impact, mission, and building God’s Kingdom. Otherwise, we aren’t competing at all.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Costs in Christian Higher Ed

  1. I’d encourage you to take a look at Why Does College Cost So Much?, which looks at this issue. You observe:

    Popular solutions to cost increases seem to focus on technology-mediated solutions. From MOOCs originating from MIT and Standford to Bill Gates suggesting that computer interaction can create mentoring opportunities, there are calls to “increase efficiencies”. John Warner of McSweeney’s had this post in Inside Higher Ed that rightly observed how this flies in the face of what we want teaching and learning to be about.

    I’ve been trying to figure out why the economics of supply and demand are supposed to push instructional costs down while allowing other cost sectors to increase. In some ways it can all be seen in terms of classic supply and demand. If we see the purpose of college as only related to job creation, then how we get to the outcome is less important. (By they way, the idea that today’s students are eager to learn through technology is anecdotal and generally unsupported. They’re far more likely to learn from the ever increasing numbers of low-wage adjunct instructors.)
    —————
    The authors of WDCCSM would say it’s not supply and demand–it’s that we discover how to lower costs on something when we figure out how to standardize and mass-produce it, turning it into a “commodity.” We haven’t found out how to do that in higher education, which remains (their word) “Artisanal.” And because we focus on mentoring, individual life transformation, we cannot establish standardization or economies of scale (except by hiring adjuncts or using technology, at least at present). That means that costs are going to go up to match inflation, at least, _as long as course-based learning is our model_.

    1. I like the artisanal approach. Others have used apprenticeship models. I have liked thinking of a metaphor based on client service. You pay a personal trainer to help you achieve a certain goal. He pushes you in ways you might not like, but it’s good for you in the long run.

      I do worry a lot about non-academic trustees who would see “standardization or economies of scale” to be the desired practice. It still seems to me that supply and demand works in areas like facilities, student programs, and the like.

      One other thing: I was in Seattle this spring when the Post-Intelligencer came out with their higher education supplement. There was a great ad from Pacific Luteran that touted value over cost. Here’s a link to their financial aid page: http://www.plu.edu/admission/first-year/financial-aid/. Making such a case is essential if we are going to explain why costs increase above inflation.

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