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Commentary: College costs - easy to attack, hard to solve

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Ah, the end of the academic year. Amid all the pomp, it is a good time to reflect on the circumstances surrounding college education. Higher education is under attack from many sides.  Let’s start with student debt.

Many students will graduate with substantial debt accumulated over the past four or five (or six?) years. Surely, they argue, spending upwards of $50,000 annually to attend that elite Midwestern college to get that cross-disciplinary degree (biology and accounting?) entitles them to a high-paying job upon graduation.

Life is a series of choices that, after the fact, sometimes seem grossly unfair. Opting for the elite school meant not going to the less expensive state school. Opting for that specialized degree that, even in the best of times has less-than-stellar job opportunities, meant not taking a degree in mundane but more employable areas like business or education.

I never blame the students, but such claims always make me wonder: If these important tradeoffs are not obvious to wide-eyed high-school seniors shopping the right college, surely their bill-paying parents see the future through more-worldly glasses?

Unfortunately, the blame for such bad decisions often is directed at the colleges that admitted them. As pundits and state officials often ask, “Couldn’t the problem be solved if universities simply cut costs?”

The cost of educating someone for four years is much more than professors’ salaries. The modern university competes for students and must, therefore, provide more than the promise of a quality education to attract them. Why else do schools build beautiful, state-of-the-art fitness centers? Or have free internet connections everywhere on campus? Or provide food service that resembles food courts where choice abounds? Or have many more counselors to assist students? Or why external fundraising and compiling the necessary staffs to conduct it is an increasingly important aspect of university administrators’ daily life?

Add to this short list the fact that states have and continue to severely reduce public funding. Mix it all together and tuition and fees increase, reflecting the true, non-subsidized cost of a getting a college degree.

“Surely there must be ways to make higher education a better deal!” you’re probably shouting by now. I’d argue that it already is, but suppose you’re right. One way would be to not admit would-be students if they do not meet minimum educational standards. It was recently reported that a large percentage of the entering freshmen at California state universities were deficient in key areas, like math or English. Allowed to stay, most universities provide expensive remedial classes that amount to repeating high-school.

Why not just pay faculty less? Though popular, reducing salaries increases the likelihood that your student will get an instructor who teaches very little. It does not take in-depth knowledge of a field to stand in front of 100 students and read the PowerPoint slides provided by the textbook company. While I do not claim it never happens, it is more likely to occur if universities hire less expensive instructors who lack adequate training.

Go online and that’ll cut costs, right? After all, who ever heard of learning something by writing down what you’ve just seen written on a, what do they call it, blackboard? TV advertisements aside, the best learning seldom occurs over a small digitized screen accessed at ungodly hours of the morning when you’re all comfy in your pjs. Online courses work for students who are self-motivated and task-oriented. Unfortunately, the vast majority of students do not possess such qualities.

And by online courses I do not mean electronic versions of the old correspondence course: Read this chapter, take this test, pass it and move on; if fail then retake; repeat sequence as necessary to collect course credit. Successful (read educational) online courses require timely participation, study and commitment.

Research also shows that the optimal class size — optimal in terms of the educational aspect, not its revenue-generating capabilities — for an online course is probably 30 students or fewer. Measuring success with an online format should not mean gaging it by a student-teacher ratio that jumps from 16:1 to 300:1. Consequently, a good online course probably is not a cost effective panacea.

Can higher education be made more efficient and still provide students with an education that gives them a leg up? Sure. But it is more complicated than slashing budgets, laying off faculty and staff, demanding a greater online presence and blindly increasing the number of diplomas handed out. These are not long-term solutions if (and this is an important if) the objective is to raise educational attainment.

R.W. Hafer is a distinguished research professor of economics and finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a research scholar with the Show-Me Institute, St. Louis.

Rik Hafer is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a scholar at the Show-Me Institute.

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