Tag: college costs

What do President Obama’s Higher Ed Proposals mean for Christian Colleges?

President Obama spoke Thursday at SUNY Binghamton to introduce his ideas about higher education in America. Friday he elaborated on those remarks at Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania. Binghamton is a research one university with just over 15,000 students. Lackawanna is a two-year (community) college with 1500 students and a focus on vocational training. From the itinerary, it seems clear that the president doesn’t have a “one size fits all” view of higher education. There’s a reason that he’s focusing on very different higher ed sectors. His remarks on Friday included passing references to the for-profit sector and to law schools.

I followed some of the initial reporting on Friday about the Binghamton speech. The president suggested clearer measures on college completion, tuition escalation, and lifetime earnings. The hope is that families being aware of “value for the dollar” will pick those institutions that hold costs down while achieving high outcomes, creating a competitive environment where the incentives shift from “what the market will bear” to “demonstrating quality“. He also gave a shout-out to innovations in technology (flipped classrooms, MOOCs) and competency-based education or credit for life learning. I didn’t get too excited about the president’s comments because it’s very early in the idea phase much less the implementation phase. It’s only today that I’m reading responses to Friday’s speech.

That didn’t stop organizations from issuing their immediate disclaimers calling out the normal suspects. For example, the AAUP came out with this statement on Saturday. They raise the normal concerns about shifting state revenue, No Child Left Behind, and the financial impact of federal compliance. Actually, much of their critique was a response to articles in the Wall Street Journal from December. They critique highly paid administrators and raise questions about how a focus on graduation rates will disproportionately impact students who are lower class or people of color.

Two weeks ago, Council of Independent Colleges president Richard Ekman wrote an open letter to President Obama about public pronouncements on college costs. Ekman rightly observes that most of the attention in the media and in Washington has gone to elite private schools and the escalating public institution tuition increases (on a percentage basis) due to decreased state funding. He points out that the private college sector is playing a vital role in both access and affordability.

While the top 100 colleges enroll 17 percent of their students from low-income backgrounds, smaller, private, nondoctoral colleges and universities, despite smaller endowments and less selective admissions, enroll approximately one-third of their students from low-income backgrounds.

Ekman goes on to observe that many of these private schools have experimented with flipped classrooms, online education, and non-traditional delivery for decades. However, face to face interaction is still mission central. (I’m always surprised to read course evaluations from online courses in my department where the students says “I wish we had more personal contact with the professor“.)
If I put all this together, we have many sectors of higher education under consideration. Large public research universities, community colleges, for-profit, elite private, small residential private, and within that sector, the Christian college or university. There is no way a single policy initiative can cover that breadth. That’s why accrediting institutions begin with institutional mission and then ask the school to evaluate its success against its unique mission.
This morning I read a wonderful post by Matt Reed in Inside Higher Education. Matt, a community college administrator in Massachusetts, usually has excellent insights on major trends in higher ed (and child-rearing). Today he focused on a geeky report from the Brookings Institution. The report, by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos, made great use of regression statistics. They used  inputs (SAT, ACT, and student body characteristics) for major universities to predict an expected six year graduation rate for 15 major universities. Then they compared the actual six year rate to the predicted. As the following chart shows when you control for inputs,  the relationship between institutional ranking and graduate rates seems to go away.
Brookings
They go on to argue that one could control for inputs more carefully and see if schools outperform their estimates. They contrast the University of Michigan (which slightly underperforms when inputs are controlled) with MSU (which overperforms). Not trying to start any in-state fights here in Michigan — it’s just what the data suggests.
Reed suggests “Deploying a squadron of sociologists to improve public higher education in America strikes me as public money well spent.” Naturally, I think this is a FABULOUS idea!
But he does suggest an approach to understanding quality outcomes within a given sector that could work. In addition to considering input data (Ekman observed that private schools disproportionately draw from lower income, first generation populations), we also need to consider the kinds of jobs that our graduates pursue. One would also need to do regressions on differential percentages of graduates heading into fields like ministry, social work, education, engineering, computer science, and finance. When career aspiration is controlled in the same way as input data, you’d have a better measure of institutional effectiveness that wouldn’t favor only some privileged sectors.
One more thing. You could even factor in contact measures like average class size or student faculty ratio as a means of controlling for the educational philosophy that drives institutional choice (for both the college and for students deciding to attend there). We’d then be able to compare Spring Arbor to the University of Michigan by statistically controlling for the various correlates of success. Multiple Regression is a Wonderful Thing!
I think the Sociology Squadron needs a good name. Any suggestions?

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.