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Containing Higher Ed Costs: How Much Consumerism

Containing Higher Ed Costs: How Much Consumerism

I find analytical tensions intriguing. Here’s one that I think many of us will have to confront before too long, if it is not already upon us:

We all know the mounting concerns about educational cost. We worry about tuition levels that price some sectors out of higher education and debt burdens that risk becoming unacceptable. It’s important to note that, at places like Mason, the results have not yet reduced market demand, but here too there may be cause for concern, at least in the future.

In response, higher education strategies must seek alternative sources of income, and like everyone else we’re doing this with at least a few promising results. But attention to cost containment is also inescapable.

Despite fervent hopes — and I am open to correction on this — there doesn’t seem to be dramatic ways to reduce the expense of educational delivery without affecting the quality of the result. We are encouraging students to make better use of summer offerings, which could shave their total study time without necessarily diminishing results. Technologies may help a bit in reducing the need for additional classrooms and cutting travel time, but they also impose some new expenses and, on balance so far, they don’t really cut costs all that much — unless distance education is delivered in ways that measurably reduce teaching effectiveness, learning outcomes, and even basic student retention. I don’t mean to evade responsibility for continued attention to academic costs, but I haven’t seen a lot beyond rhetoric in this area so far.

The more obvious candidate would seem to be the apparatus that has developed around student life, with growing staffs, increasing space allocations, and a burgeoning set of activities. Should we be thinking about a more spartan educational climate, with fewer embellishments and their related costs?

There are at least two problems with this prospect — aside from entrenched interests from student life staffs, athletic departments and so on, which is where the interesting tension sets in. First, some student life activities enhance learning by building community, enhancing the academic climate and so on. Too much spartanism might be counterproductive. Second, even more obviously, a whole batch of students, their parents, and alumni, seem to want more rather than less. They want fancier dorms, more counseling, more activities, more consumer pleasures as they go to school. Sometimes, indeed, as one listens to student concerns and evaluates what universities now must offer to attract applicants, one worries that the consumer elements have overwhelmed the academic mission. Happily, I have recently been assured by one of our admissions leaders, it’s ultimately academic quality that serves as prime criterion for undergraduate applicants, but there’s no question that a consumer spiral exists as well.

Universities like Mason serve, of course, several kinds of undergraduate populations, reflecting economic and social divides.  We have paid growing attention to the bread and circuses angle, but we also have commuter students who live with parents (and often work), transfer after completing community college in order to cut costs, and so on. Of course we still levy student fees upon them, whether they take full advantage or not, but some cost containment is possible. But we have no sense, to date, that we should be increasing our focus on this group.

Where, then, does the future lie for responsible public institutions? (And, of course, are there other ways to become leaner?) In a still-affluent society, with all sorts of expectations about college life, dramatic departures may not be as productive as some disruption scenarios currently argue. But it may be time to face up to the tensions more squarely — to consider more frankly, for example, different kinds of packages to offer different kinds of students. It will be interesting to see if a discussion becomes more firmly established.