Demand for Change in Higher Education – Not Tuition – Remains

There are legitimate societal concerns in the apparent rising price of a college education.  Despite some recent questions about the value of a college education, global demand for higher education is widely considered positive for a country’s economic growth.  The apparent, rising price in the U. S. represents a potential damper on demand, impairing the long-term prosperity of the country.  It also obscures a central underlying issue of the inability of nearly all traditional colleges and universities to adopt and institutionalize fundamental changes to the teaching and learning process.

The recent publication of two reports on rising tuition drew attention to the concerns that many people have about the price of a college education and its potential impact.  One came from the College Board’s Advocacy and Policy Center and the other came from The Center for College Affordability and Productivity.  Choice of years of focus and dissimilar methods in the two studies resulted in different perspectives with the College Board’s study showing a far higher rise in tuition.  The Center for College Affordability made the case that net tuition after inclusion of financial aid rose only modestly.

The real issues here may have been missed, even if one attended to only one of these reports.  The real issues are two-fold – (1) that much of the decline in affordability comes from increases in the non-tuition costs and (2) tuition price volatility along with how price tuition decisions are made by traditional colleges obscure underlying, and long-term forces for tuition increase.

Relative to the first issue, the authors of the Center’s report stated, “. . . roughly two-thirds of the increase in total college costs originates from non-tuition sources.”  The non-tuition sources include the rapidly rising costs of textbook and the increases in the costs of off-campus housing.  The second issue is more complex to understand.  Colleges raise tuition when their boards and the politics permit increases.  When they are unable to raise prices for the same reasons, they defer capital expenditures and limit new hires and, where they do hire, they substitute lower wage labor in the form of temporary adjunct faculty and non-tenure track faculty of various classifications.  Colleges also take other temporary measures during severe recessions as we have seen with the widespread use of furloughs of faculty and staff, thereby decreasing budgets temporarily.

What we are not seeing is fundamental change.  Colleges which would not integrate more online learning during more prosperous times cannot afford the capital investment and retraining for faculty required for incorporating more online learning during recessionary times.  Reliance on traditional approaches to the use of physical books and costly and traditional brick and mortar classrooms continues.  Moreover, the leadership from presidents and provosts required to make fundamental change is sadly lacking at most institutions.

While The Center for College Affordability’s study may be accurate in its depiction of a limited net tuition increase, the forces for rising tuition remain in place.  They are fundamentally associated with how we teach and how students learn.  Therefore, the probability remains of our seeing either an impact on demand for college education and/or rising, long-term debt of graduates and non-graduate-attendees.  Rectifying the underlying forces will ultimately depend upon alternatives to traditional colleges and universities or the will of traditional colleges and universities to adopt and institutionalize fundamental changes to the teaching and learning process.

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