Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Containing College Costs (without MOOCing Things Up)



The rapidly rising cost of American college education – tuition jumped 500% over the past 28 years, according to MSN Money – became a matter of national concern last year, when President Obama announced several mild proposals addressing the problem.  Other stakeholders in the debate, mainly state legislators, college administrators, and well-intentioned but clueless gadflies like Tom Friedman have advocated more radical reforms, like increasing faculty teaching loads or relying on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).  I have not given the matter much thought here, except to note in passing that Americans have collectively decided A) to make college education almost universally necessary for employment, and B) to force students to pay for it themselves, with loans now collectively valued at 1 trillion dollars

Rather than curse the darkness and the many predators who lurk in it, some thoughtful faculty members have offered intelligent and nuanced suggestions about how to get college costs under control.  One, I am proud to say, is my colleague Anne Foster, who kindly took time off from her busy schedule as a professor and co-editor of Diplomatic History to share her thoughts on the subject. Her suggestions will appear here in two parts, one today and the other this Friday.  Comments are welcome, either here or by direct communication with Prof. Foster (Anne.Foster@indstate.edu).

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On college affordability, view from the trenches
Anne Foster

            President Barack Obama has weighed in on the college affordability conversation, touting a program to incentivize colleges and universities to keep their costs down.  He wants to make college more affordable, student loans less onerous, and higher education more accessible.  All worthy goals, none likely to be achieved by President Obama’s plans.  From my vantage point as a faculty member with six years of teaching experience in a small, private liberal arts college and ten in a public university, I offer the view from the trenches, and some advice to those whose choices make a difference in the cost of college.

Federal government:  I start with the feds only because President Obama has suggested the federal government will use its power to enforce a particular vision of how to make college affordable.  His vision is based on the notion that knowledge will lead to more rational choices.  Students and parents already have access to a lot of information about which colleges are more affordable and graduate their students, at the College Navigator website run by the U.S. Department of Education.  Some other federal government efforts would be more helpful.
            First, make it easier for students attending college part time to access federal financial aid.  Too many students with modest economic resources or demanding personal situations attempt to attend college full time while working full time or caring for family members. Why do they take on this heavy burden?  Because only full time students are eligible for most forms of financial aid.  And because financial aid is not tied to number of credit hours attempted, but to number of semesters attended.  This one-size-fits-all approach ill serves the students who most need and deserve assistance with attending college.
            Second, make sure Pell Grant amounts keep up with inflation.  Self-explanatory.  The grant for those students whose families have the fewest financial resources need to hold their value.
            Third, make student loans able to be discharged in the bankruptcy process, and lower the interest rate.  Student loans should be harder to get and cheaper to have.

State governments:  State universities have seen their net cost rise more quickly than private in most cases, in large measure because most state governments have cut appropriations.  Many state colleges and universities have also been asked to teach more students with these fewer resources, and to meet an increasing number of mandates from the state government.
            First, decide whether you want to keep cutting taxes or have inexpensive higher education.  You can’t do both.
            Second, don’t micromanage state colleges and universities.  Legislate educational goals; let universities figure out how to implement them.  The faculty, administration and students know how to manage their own institutions far better than you do.
            Third, do cultivate better relationships with faculty and students at the state universities.  Most state legislators speak only to lobbyists and high level administration officials.  Important though they are, they are the least important people in the educational process.  If you want to know what is happening, work to get to know those who are teaching and those who are learning.
            Fourth, education is difficult, for learners and teachers.  The path is not always smooth and swift, and people will make mistakes along the way and then learn from them.  Focusing solely on the goal of graduation may miss the broader goal of education.
            Fifth, education is expensive and state budgets are limited.  If state appropriations to colleges and universities must be cut, don’t be surprised if those schools go after other revenue sources (tuition hikes and out of state students).  Don’t be surprised when the schools think that if the state provides less money it should have less control as well.

(To be continued.)

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