Federal U & The Rising Cost of Higher Ed
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.
Jordan Weissman thinks we can make college free without spending more on education. What would we have to do? Stop subsidizing private colleges. The idea appeals to me on a populist level. It has quite a bit going for it. I wonder to the extent, though, that it’s missing the boat.
There is a difference between helping people afford to go to college, and actually making college more affordable. One of the problems in private education is the extent to which a lot of schools don’t have a whole lot of incentive to keep costs down. Here’s the thing, though, most public schools don’t, either. The top-tier and the up-and-comers both want a particular student profile. That particular student profile is going to generally be more affluent, is going to want nicer amenities at the school, and is going to be either able to pay for it or willing and able to get sufficient loans.
So who is going to keep an eye on making things affordable? Nobody really has any reason to. That’s a problem. I don’t see anywhere in the process where there is downward pressure. The for-profits are making like bandits because they’re in one of the few industries that doesn’t have all that much reason to be concerned about cost. Brick-and-mortar schools don’t have much reason to want things cheaper and therefore will charge as much in tuition for online ed as they do for their nice campuses.
If we just had some countervailing force to serve as a gut-check. But what?
One idea is already in motion. Texas Governor Rick Perry, after having some ideas on reform for traditional schools shot down, worked with non-profit, online institution Western Governors University to provide a college education for possibly under $10,000. It’s online, with all the drawbacks thereof, but it’s a way to bypass the system with a bona fide college degree. We need more of this, in my view, and less expensive programs like Arizona State’s or Phoenix’s. But with the exception of actual WGU, which itself was a quasi-government initiative, I don’t know how we get there.
One interesting idea is federal universities. Another one of the problems when it comes to for-profit entities is that their stamp of approval doesn’t mean much. Their client is the student, and so what does it mean if they graduate a student? That they paid their bills on time? This is at least theoretically a problem with traditional private and public universities, but the latter is accountable to the state and the former works off a different set of motivations.
So what would federal universities provide and accomplish? As with state universities, it would be the federal government’s seal of approval. The government would have a reason to get it right as far as quality goes. Quality, in this case, is defined by graduating only students that are worthy of graduation and not becoming a diploma mill. At the same time, it would have a different mission than most universities. A primarily undergraduate, purely academic-and-teaching institution. The normal rules of prestige wouldn’t apply. Not in the same way. They could even work with other schools that offer their online courses publicly and arrange for “transfer credits” for taking those classes. Or they use the online class in substitute of lectures and Federal U.’s part would be collaboration and grading (or in some cases, just the latter). I mention the online component, but for larger cities it could be integrated with physical instruction the same way that Phoenix does. There are a number of ways to approach it. The key thing would be to make it trim, affordable, and only the frills people want to pay for.
This wouldn’t be a full-on substitute for the more traditional college experience. The prestige wouldn’t be great. To the extent that college is mostly about networking and positional credentialing, it may not change that much. Networking opportunities would not be good. More people getting degrees lowers the value of the positional credential. Now, I take something of a cynical view of college and the workplace, but even I don’t think that’s the entirety of it. College demonstrates your ability to jump through a series of hoops and even, to some extent, having learned something along the way.
I happen to be of the mind that our focus on college is too intense. A weird mixture of unintentional classism and misguided egalitarianism. But unless we’re going to tackle that problem head on – and I don’t think we are – then the current problem of employers essentially freeloading off the expenses of the state and its would-be employers isn’t going away any time soon. Making the piece of paper genuinely less expensive (both for student and for the state) should be our priority.