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Saving Students Money

As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, higher education is undergoing much greater scrutiny these days, especially in Texas. One of the key areas of contention is the cost of going to college. This is actually a large umbrella for many related issues:  tuition, cost of books, educational value, overall debt upon graduation, and so on. Today, I offer some perspectives on these.

Tuition has gone sky-high. I graduated from UT with my bachelor’s in 1992. In my four years there, tuition doubled from $16 per credit hour to $32 per credit hour. This came out to$192-288 (at $16) per semester, depending on how many hours, plus fees. Due to a few scholarships, frugal living, the low tuition and amazing parents, I graduated with no debt. Several years ago, UT went to flat rate tuition, so whether you take 12 or 18 hours, you pay the same tuition, and many, though not all fees are included (I think). According to a UT website, today’s chemistry major pays $4828 for one semester, a 1700% increase in 23 years! (That’s more than my dorm cost for an entire year back then!) The site explains a number of factors for this, but it is still no wonder folks are upset. And UT is still considered a bargain compared to similarly ranked schools.

Why so much? I’m not really sure. However, a real part of it comes from universities offering a dizzying array of ‘services’ not core to their mission of educating students or doing scholarly research, but often created to satisfy a political agenda. The non-academic, non-research bloat that has arisen over the years is astounding. Another real source of expense is the high level of technology that universities have of necessity built into their infrastructure. The IT burden on the university is significant, but it is expected that universities have cutting edge wifi, computer, and web-based technologies available to students, researchers and the community. Also, libraries are a huge expense. Use of hard copy books, journals and other resources has dwindled precipitously, yet it is rightfully expected that university libraries continue to be repositories of paper archives and continue to expand their holdings. Simultaneously, they are expected to develop, purchase and maintain electronic archives accessible to users. I know for a fact that online library subscriptions to even major scientific journals can easily cost thousands, each. These are just factors that are off the top of my head. But the rise of tuition is a real issue.

Textbooks (and books in general) have also outpaced general inflation. Many texts have sticker prices in the hundreds of dollars, and even spiral bound softcover books can be $60-80. It is astounding to me to pay $10 for a paperback novel, so textbooks aren’t that surprising by comparison. One factor that makes texts so expensive is that they have relatively small print runs unless it is a leading text nationally for high enrollment classes like intro survey courses (intro to psych, general chemistry, etc.). In those cases, it is expected that extensive high quality and online ancillaries come with the text, which drives the price up. In my department, we have individually done a number of things to try to help mitigate this. Some instructors have done away with a text entirely, just using notes and course packets. (I think this can be a little risky for the student who may want to have concepts explained a different way from the instructor—a key value of a text.) In my lab courses, the in house lab manual is available in .pdf format on our password protected course website, separated into individual chapters, so students can print out just what they want to. We also have a lab text, but I encourage students to look on Amazon or other online sources for used copies and let them use even very old editions, so that they can get them more cheaply. One final note—unless a text is used nationally, a professor does not get rich off of it. Royalties are typically only about 10%. While that sounds significant, when you look at the hundreds or thousands of hours invested in writing a full textbook from scratch, it is less than minimum wage for most texts. Most don’t do it for the money. In fact, in our department, most authors donate their royalties to a departmental scholarship fund, so they get nothing for it.

I wasn’t sure how to summarize this next issue succinctly, so just call it ‘educational value.’ Here in Texas, UT is the elephant. It is our flagship university, so it functions as a lightning rod for controversy, deserved or not (often it can be deserved, in all honesty). People have pointed to it as a Tier 1 research institution and complained that UT should offer some degrees for under $10000 total tuition, and if the school wasn’t so focused on research, it could do it. I am not a researcher—my job is solely to teach, so please understand that as I make my comments. I am not sympathetic to this argument in the slightest. There are colleges and universities in Texas that do offer lower cost degrees. We have a broad spectrum of institutions from community colleges to four-year undergraduate colleges to lower tier research and graduate schools all the way up to our Tier 1 institutions like UT and Texas A&M. If the cost of one’s degree is the primary factor, there are schools out there that offer that. If you want to go to UT or similar, then you must understand going into it that it is more expensive and you probably won’t get the individual attention you will at a smaller school that places a higher value on undergraduate instruction. It is that simple. One reason UT has the price tag it does is because it is already trying to be all things to all people, and that costs money. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. In the marketplace, you vote with your dollars, so go to the school that meets your requirements and your paying that tuition is approval of that school’s model.

One of the most ironic things about the ire that UT has drawn this year is that just 2-3 years ago, residents of this state voted approval of a constitutional amendment to appropriate money to upgrade eight of our second and third tier universities to Tier 1. In short, the citizens of this state voted to take some of these more economical institutions and turn them into UT-like schools, to narrow the breadth of the educational spectrum. Now they resent UT’s business model. Again, I have no sympathy for this argument.

Finally, a word about the overall debt load students have coming out. Many of the news articles, blogs and other information outlets have moaned about the five-figure debt students have coming out of college. Yes, we’ve seen here how much just tuition and books are, and it is significant. I will also add a few things to consider.

1)      As a culture we have made this disaster for ourselves. We have perpetuated a lie that the only way to be successful is to get a college education. This is simply not true, yet we have tried to force all students, ready or not, with the aptitude or not, into a college bound mindset. I’m sorry, but my auto mechanic makes more than I do. The trade industries can be extremely lucrative, and require an apprenticeship period, short courses, certificate programs and the like, and then folks can start earning good money in 1-2 years, with minimal debt. We have become worshippers of academic intelligence and have forgotten how many different types of intelligence there are in the world. College caters to very few of them, and mostly to just one kind—book smarts. Not everyone belongs in college. “But, they didn’t get the necessary education in high school, so they need college to be ready for the world.” It seems then, that our efforts are better spent at reforming the public schools to be what they used to be than to treat college as a finishing school. That’s the expensive way to do it. We have to get past standardized testing and the idea that more money in public schools equals a better education. (But that’s another topic.)
2)      Student lifestyles aren’t what they once were. This is a broad generalization, but it is largely true. The concept of the ‘poor college student’ is no longer the dominant reality. Student housing around campus is being transformed. Old apartment buildings and student houses have been torn down by the city block and replaced with luxury condos with full amenities and the appropriate price tag. More and more students have cars and they are nicer and nicer. The amount of technology that students own is amazing. Yes, a good laptop or computer are essential tools today, but the smartphones, iPads, iPods and other gadgetry they tend to have could feed a family of four for a year in some parts of the world. Also, the social life of many students today is high class. Today’s college student at a school like UT is individually likely to be in the top 1-5% of the world’s rich, in terms of lifestyle. They are trying to maintain the lifestyle they had at home rather than starting from scratch and building up to it. If they lived as frugally as many of us did, but with the resources they have today, their graduation debt would be significantly reduced. Please note there are many students out there who do live frugally and even below the poverty line. They still exist. But at a school like UT, they are not the dominant picture you see. The amount of conspicuous consumption among students is astounding, and that must contribute to the magnitude of student debt. To lay it all at the university’s feet is a bit unfair.

There is lots of room for improvement and reform in higher education. Believe me, I see it every day. My concern and objection is to how the outside critics in the media and political scene seem to make it a one or two dimensional problem, looking for low hanging fruit that they can attack and feel like they’ve done something. I just want folks to look at the whole situation, to realize there are many factors, and to use wisdom in calling for reform through truly seeing the complexity and interconnectedness of factors, and the dangerous implications of unexamined radical surgery. There is plenty to cut, trim, remold, but we need to make sure to avoid the arteries and unnecessary amputations.


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