Friday, September 20, 2013

Containing College Costs (Continued)

Students:  There are constant complaints that college is horrendously expensive, and yet many of you spend money like water while in college.  To outside observers, you often look like you are not serious about your studies and then disappointed when you graduate after four (or six) years (if you graduate), having learned and benefited and profited less than you thought you were going to.
            First, if you don’t feel ready to go to college, don’t go!  No matter how much your parents or friends or high school counselor are pushing you, listen to your own inner voice.  But, if you don’t go to college, get a real job and live on your own on your wages.  Find out what the economic choices really are.
            Second, study what you love and are good at, but be practical about it.  The best strategy is a double major (or more) if you have multiple or esoteric interests.
            Third, live frugally.  Don’t borrow money, however deferred and low interest the payments are, to live a lifestyle above your family’s means.  Take the bus.  Have an old phone.  Go out only once a week.  Have a roommate.  You can still have fun, and your 20s will be much more pleasant with lower student loan payments.
            Fourth, be involved on campus.  Your major may give you a credential.  Your work and extra-curricular experiences on campus (or off) and your connections to faculty will help you get a job or into graduate school.
            Fifth, persevere when courses are hard.  Dropping a course seems easy at the time, but adds to your time in college and the amount you ultimately pay.
            Finally, you will get out of college what you put into it.  Do not expect to be forced to do all the things necessary for your education and career preparation.  You will certainly be offered many wonderful opportunities.  It is not your university’s fault if you fail to take advantage of them.

Parents: College for one child is probably the third-most expensive thing you have to fund in your lifetime, the first two being your retirement and house purchase.  If you have multiple kids, then college expenses could rival those others.
            First, and it’s probably too late for you if you are reading this, save, save, save, save.  You have to save for retirement.  You have to save for a home, and you get to pay that off over 30 years.
            Second, don’t let your kid go to a college you can’t afford.  It is not necessary to go to an expensive school to get a good education.
            Third, help your kid see what is important about a college.  Not important: fancy dorms, state of the art work out facilities, gourmet food options, national championship athletic teams. All that is nice, but you should see multiple dollar signs hanging over each of those fancy extras.  Important: low faculty-student ratio, good academic support services, effective career services center, vibrant extracurricular, internship, and study abroad programs.  If you allow your kid to prioritize choosing all the extras even if it’s too expensive for you, please do not complain later that your kid has a lot of debt and no job.  You set the tone by giving the message of choosing fun over substance in college.

Faculty: You just want to teach and do your own research, and not have to worry about things outside your job description like whether students actually finish college.  It is the case that most faculty are working harder.  And faculty see that their pay is rising more slowly than the cost of everything else on campus.  Still, you are the backbone of the institution.  Students need you.
            So, first, do notice what is going on with your students.  It is not coddling to notice when students are struggling or absent, and to provide support, a gentle nudge or a kick in the pants.
            Second, realize that many students have much more serious issues to contend with than may have been the case during your college years.  Practice compassionate rigor.          
            Third, it is easier to say “yes” to students.  Yes, you can drop that class.  Yes, you can change your major.  Yes, you can take that difficult requirement during summer school or online at another university.  But try saying “no,” or better yet, “why” to the students asking to do those potentially problematic, expensive, education-extending things.
            Fourth, don’t put unnecessary obstacles in the path of students working sincerely to finish a class, a major or a degree.  Maintaining standards is crucial, but so is facilitating student success.

Administrators:  Your numbers and cost have been growing faster than anything else in the university except possibly health insurance.  Any serious attempt to address the cost of college will take a long, hard look at each administrative position.
            First, then, you serve the institution and students best if every act of administration makes it easier for students to learn and faculty to teach.  In practical terms, this means having an attitude of facilitation rather than setting mandates and issuing directives.
            Second, the act of teaching and process of learning does not always unfold with business-like efficiency.  But administration should.  See how much you can do with the fewest possible resources.  The trend has been administrative bloat and cuts to faculty lines.  This suggests that high level administrators believe the university’s mission is administration, not teaching.
            Third, vow that no assistant or associate dean, let alone other administrator without an academic title, will make more than the average full professor salary in your institution, calculated on the basis only of regular (not endowed chair) salaries.  Send a message that your institution values education more highly than management.

- Anne Foster

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