Why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college?

As the title asks, why hasn’t someone tried to build or fund a very low-cost, very high-quality college? Or, if they have, what school is out there and has tried this?

It seems like a ripe strategy because virtually every (even slightly) selective school is pursing the same prestige strategy—high sticker prices, nominal discounts via “scholarships,” tenure-based faculty selection system, extensive administrative bloat, and so on. Yet even as schools relentlessly copy each other, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students, and student openness to alternatives. At the same time, college tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades, and everyone knows it. Education is a component of the “cost disease” that is afflicting other sectors too. The number of college administrators has grown enormously (though that may not be the prime factor behind public-school cost increases). Students used to be possible to work summer jobs and graduate with little or no debt; schools in the 1960s or 1970s don’t appear to have been dramatically worse at education than schools today, and in some ways they may have been better, yet today colleges are many times more expensive. Schools trumpet their commitment to nominal education quality, the same way airlines trumpeted their commitment to passenger comfort, before deregulation forced airlines to compete on price and other metrics too, and anyone who’s been to a modern college knows that real commitment is “quality” is more rhetorical than real.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track or teaching jobs, so the workforce is available. Most universities and even many colleges care far more about research, much of which is bogus anyway, than teaching. Many universities don’t care about teaching at all, as long as the professor shows up to lecture, isn’t drunk, and doesn’t trade sex for grades. I hear many, many grad students and early professors lament the way their schools don’t care about teaching. There’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who’d desperately like to be professors. While professors who only teach two or three classes per semester complain relentlessly about all the “work” they supposedly have and how “busy” they allegedly are, it could be very easy to get professors to teach far more than they currently do at most schools, further reducing costs.

In short, the supply of faculty is there, and the supply of students ought to be there. With the setup above, let me repeat: why hasn’t anyone attempted to start a teaching-focused college with low tuition and extremely high-quality academics? I’m thinking of a school with a mandate to minimize the number of administrators, sports teams, and other boondoggles. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years. The school could highlight “proof of knowledge” over seat time as a metric; to my knowledge, there’s nothing intrinsic about four or five years of seat time. Students who study hard could and should spend less time in the seat.

Some of the situation I’m describing sounds like a community college, but I’m imagining a school that still draws from a national applicant pool and still maintains or attempts to maintain an elite or comprehensive academic character. Think of a liberal arts school but scaled up and with fewer administrators. If I were a billionaire I might try to do this; stupendously rich people loved endowing schools in the 19th Century, but that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Still, it worked then, so perhaps it could work now.

It may be that schools are really selling prestige and status, and consequently a low-cost, high-quality teaching school would be too low prestige and low status to attract students.

Still, and again as noted previously, pretty much every school, public or private, is pursuing the exact same prestige, admissions, and marketing strategy. With one or two exceptions (CalTech, University of Chicago—okay, there are a few others, but not many), they don’t even try (really or seriously) to distinguish themselves, and almost every school competes for the same BS college rankings. Such a uniform market seems ripe for alternate approaches, yet none are being tried or have taken off, though there are some small scale efforts, like Minerva.

What am I missing?

* Maybe it was easier to start colleges in the 19th Century, when regulation was nonexistent and complex subsidies of various kinds weren’t available. In the 19th Century, many colleges were also founded with the explicit intent of saving students’ souls, so perhaps the lack of religiosity in today’s billionaires and/or most of today’s students is a factor. God is an underappreciated component of many older endeavors.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in. Plus, college is a huge investment, which engenders a certain amount of conservatism in choices. Given costs, though, I think there’s room for experimentation here.

* Maybe there are efforts afoot and they’ve either failed or are too small for me to have noticed.

* Current schools are pursuing a complex price discrimination strategy, in which the sticker price is paid by a relatively small number of students, and much of the study body receives “scholarships” that are really tuition discounts. Maybe this system is more appealing to students and possibly schools than a transparent, everyone-pays-$5,000-per-year strategy.

* Students by and large pay with their parents’ money or pay with loans, so many an unbundled version of a school really is less attractive than one with lots of administrators, feel-good projects, fancy gyms, etc. Despite schools’ rhetoric to the contrary, they’re obsessed with attracting and retaining rich kids, so that market may be where all the juice is.

* Billionaires who might fund this are busy doing other things.

* The number of “good” or at least weird and different students who would try such a school is not great enough (given the current cost of college and the number of students out there, I find this one hard to believe, but it isn’t impossible).

I’m guessing number four is most likely, but maybe there are other features I’m missing.

5 responses

  1. It could be that there are diminishing returns on vocational education; as the US education system evolved, schools converged on quality of education. Thereafter, competing for prestige and status was the only way to distinguish yourself as a school.

    This could be particularly true for “mushy” subjects where it is hard to test for competency. How can I teach the basics of accounting better than the other school? One way is to have smarter kids who can learn more faster. Or I could punt, side stepping the issue and offering the opportunity to signal. Schools can filter kids that learn more faster based on high school performance and admissions tests as a proxy for intelligence*.

    If colleges are good for networking and signaling, then you are best served by going to the place that sends the appropriate signal to the network that you want to join. Robin Hanson has written a lot about this on his blog Overcoming Bias.

    Networking and signaling dovetail well with prestige and status.

    *Sometimes it seems as if law school works like this. If you get into Yale, then they don’t have to bother grading your performance. If you made it into Yale, you can handle the associate hamster wheel at a prestigious firm.


  2. Tenure has a place — it tends to reduce the effects of politics on teaching. But permanent tenure isn’t the only way to go.

    Suppose that professors got an initial 3 year commitment, followed by a 10 year tenure term? During the first period the professors has some stability and can demonstrate their worth, and if they are mutually agreeable to a 10 year term, they don’t have to deal with worldly political influence.

    After that, you go find another place to teach, and everyone knows that you weren’t fired, your time was just up.

    In general I like the idea of fixed-length contracts.

    Incidentally, you can prove that you have a better accountancy school by showing a greater rate of students passing CPA and other specialized professional exams.


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  5. What you’re talking about sounds a little like St John’s College — a small school with only (or mostly?) undergrads; all seminar-style classes with emphasis on in-class discussions; a single liberal arts degree program for everyone, hence I guess less admin overhead needed; strong deemphasis on intercollegiate sports. I remember being interested in that when I was thinking about going to college (a long time ago now). I seem to recall tuition was a bit lower, not shockingly so. But I decided against pursuing it because

    1) I was 99% sure I eventually wanted to do math/science/engineering of some kind, and I thought it made most sense to go somewhere with lots of resources in those areas (specialized classes/labs, student research programs);

    2) I had heard that in college one learned more from fellow students than from class, so going where the smartest students were seemed like a good bet. (In my mind it had nothing to do with networking per se, actually; I was extremely naive about pretty much anything careerist.) I checked St John’s published admissions statistics on SATs/GPAs/etc., as well as whatever few online comments about the school I could find, and from that rather shallowly concluded that the best students weren’t usually choosing to go there.

    So I guess the single-data-point answer to “why not an excellent teaching-only school” from 17-year-old me would have been a version of your second (marketing) and last (not enough interest) ideas. Sharply lower tuition would certainly have helped, though college costs were not quite as crazy then as they are now.


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