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. Yet even as they do so, news about outrageous student loan burdens is everywhere and probably affecting the choices made by students. 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). Still, it 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.

College costs and debts have soared, and at the same time the number of PhDs granted far outstrips the number of tenure-track and teaching jobs. 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. So there’s a surplus of cheap PhDs out there who would 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. So, 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 and sports teams. One could even eliminate tenure, and thus ensure that PhDs hired today won’t still be on the payroll in 40 years.

This situation 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 somewhat 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 (so far as I know).

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.

* Current schools might just be too damn good at marketing for others to break in.

* 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.

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

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

What happens when people with partial knowledge start talking about college costs in Arizona and elsewhere

One painful thing about knowing a complex politicized subject fairly well is that most of the commentary on it looks pretty dumb because the commentators don’t really understand it. The latest edition of that malady comes from A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona, which someone forwarded to me because a) I’m a grad student at the University of Arizona and b) I write about academic novels. The problem with the link is that while some of it is somewhat accurate, some of it less so, and a lot of it is taken out of context. For example, it shows a table demonstrating that a surprisingly high number of people working in low-skill professions that don’t require a college degree nonetheless have one—but that probably says more about the graduates than it does about college.

The next item quotes the conservative Goldwater Institute saying that the number of administrators has grown:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent. Arizona State University, for example, increased the number of administrators per 100 students by 94 percent during this period while actually reducing the number of employees engaged in instruction, research and service by 2 percent. Nearly half of all full-time employees at Arizona State University are administrators.

(You can read more in this vein via Why So Many Administrators?, but although it asks “Why so many administrators?”, it doesn’t answer that question.)

Problem is, the Goldwater Institute study is specious for two reasons: 1) It doesn’t deal with changing definitions of “administrator” over time, and although it implies that more administrators equal more waste, it doesn’t actually talk about which administrators it wants cut. Job services offices are new and science grants often require administrators. Everyone is against bureaucracy unless it’s the bureaucracy they need. Hell, I’m against administration, bureaucracy, evil, simple carbohydrates (except for carrot cake), and the coyotes that ate my neighbor’s cat. So do we want the administrators in the beefed up jobs office cut? The ones in the disability resource centers that’ve opened widely? The ones that offer counseling to students contemplating suicides? The ones hired to manage science grants? You tell me.

Productivity among universities isn’t increasing—see College Costs: The Sequel for more on why:

College cost, and cost in the other similar industries, is rising for three broad reasons. First, over time we have found ways to reduce the number of labor hours and kilowatts of power needed to produce most manufactured goods and agricultural products. By contrast, many services remain artisan-like. The time of the service provider is the service itself, and labor-saving productivity gains are very hard to achieve. As a result, the cost of a year of college or an hour of a lawyer’s time must rise compared to the price of a ton of steel or a bushel of wheat.

This is “cost disease,” which is sometimes called Baumol’s disease, and a comment by Al zeroed in on it quite accurately. Rising productivity elsewhere in the economy generates this “disease,” while creating the growth that pays the costs for these more artisan-like services. The college-centric view of the world does not accord this argument the central place the data say it deserves.

[. . .]

A number of our critics noted that distance learning has the potential to revolutionize higher education. We wish we were as sanguine as the distance-learning optimists. The best evidence suggests that course work that blends face-to-face instruction with distance components yields the best outcome. The best courses for this are introductory classes with relatively static knowledge. Many universities already are well down the path of incorporating these approaches.

In short, we haven’t really found an effective way to increase the productivity of education because we can’t find good ways of educating mass numbers of people save through having them sit together with more experienced people who are supposed to be experts in their fields and having those “experts” (who we call “teachers” or “professors”) impart some of what they know. This doesn’t scale easily because the prof / teacher : student ratio remains approximately even. Although digital utopians want the Internet to replace teachers / profs, it appears that the vast majority of the population prefers watching porn and computer games to figuring out what the hell Hegel is talking about or how mitochondrial DNA works.

Then there are comments like this: “Arizona State University’s four-year graduation rate is a shocking 28 percent. Low standards and easy loans are a recipe for disaster.” There are two obvious ways to raise the graduation rate: raise the admissions bar so better students get in or make it easier to graduate. Grade inflation has already done the latter to some extent. ASU and UA will effectively take almost anyone, which they apparently need or want to for budgetary reasons.

An aside about grade inflation: one of the most useful efforts I’ve read about recently comes from A Quest to Explain What Grades Really Mean, which discusses UNC Chapel Hill’s effort “to add extra information — probably median grades, and perhaps more — to transcripts. In addition, they expect to post further statistics providing context online and give instructors data on how their grading compares with their colleagues’.” This would be incredibly welcomed, because at the moment there’s a strong incentive for professors to give higher grades, which lead to higher evaluations, but don’t have any immediate cost for the profs involved.

The harder way to raise the college graduation rate is to make classes smaller, track each student more carefully, increase the number of advisors, and so forth. All this will decrease “productivity” (it’s very “productive” by simple measures of productivity to have one prof lecture 1,000 students). In short, big schools would need to become more like Clark University, where I went to undergrad, only with tens of thousands of students, and this would raise costs, ceteris paribus.

The biggest problem with this article is that it acts like college administrators and professors aren’t aware of the kinds of issues raised. They are, and there’ve been endless books written about them. A recent winner: Why Does College Cost So Much?.

There may be a “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona,” but it isn’t for the reasons stated or implied in this article.

A meta point: most big, complex social systems (think healthcare, education, government, military, companies) don’t exist as they do because they’re the theoretical best. They exist the way they do because they’ve evolved thanks to reactions from social, financial, and other pressures into the beasts they look like today. Most people don’t have the historical knowledge necessary to understand why and how they evolved they way they have.

My overall political feelings are usually captured by The Onion, mostly because so much day-to-day political discourse looks like parody. Two examples from America’s Finest News Source: “Barack Obama – Either Doing His Best In One of The Most Difficult Times In American History, Or Hitler,” since we all know politicians must be one or the other, and “Jan Brewer – Not Afraid To Do What The Federal Government Won’t And Shouldn’t,” which basically describes what Arizona politics are like:

By demanding that police check any suspicious- looking individual’s immigration status, Brewer stood up for the kind of racial profiling that other politicians wouldn’t, and under any circumstances shouldn’t, have the guts to support. Refusing to bow down to sense or reason, Brewer also made it possible for citizens to sue police officers who fail to carry out the troublingly vague terms of the new law, no matter how much it might tie up the state’s court system—a bold stance the federal government simply couldn’t be bothered with.

Efforts to solve big, institutional problems tend to suffer from unintended consequences. They tend not to respond well to ideologically driven solutions, whether those preferred by the left or right. They tend to to require a lot of strenuous effort if you’re even going to understand them, let alone propose to fix them, and the problems are much easier to identify than possible solutions to those problems, which might be worse than the problems themselves. Note one such example above: a simple way to improve the graduation rate at Arizona universities is to raise the admissions bar. But doing so means that some deserving though marginal students won’t get a shot at college at all. They’ll be more likely to steal the car of the people who write “A Dismal Picture For Higher Education in Arizona.” And so on.

This is the place where I’m supposed to propose solutions to the kinds of problems universities have, but I don’t have any that are short and easily digestible. Beware people who say they do.

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