Expert says politics, not logistics, keep college costs high
July 2, 2019
Many citizens feel the cost of college has become too expensive, noting the heavy student-loan debt that burdens people for years. Vance H. Fried, a senior fellow with the 1889 Institute, said policymakers could significantly reduce the cost of college. But to do so, they’ll have to prioritize the needs of students over the clout of people who make their living off the excesses of the current system.
“Operationally, it’s easy,” said Fried, a longtime professor at Oklahoma State University. “Politically, it isn’t.”
The 1889 Institute advocates for policy changes “based on principles of limited and responsible government, free enterprise, and a robust civil society.” Fried believes those principles are not incompatible with provision of a college education.
He supports one reform that has been long discussed, but only partially implemented: Providing most courses online or in a blended format, a move Fried said could “dramatically reduce costs.”
While certain classes with a strong hands-on element cannot be done online, he said many courses can be provided through the Internet “and you actually get better quality and a lot lower costs, because you get a lot more consistency.”
Another way to reduce the expense of higher education: Combine, or eliminate, low-enrollment majors.
“If you only are graduating six kids a year in a major, you don’t need that major,” Fried said.
For example, he suggested some specialized majors should be combined into a broader major, which would provide students with greater post-graduation employment opportunities.
“History is cool. I love history,” Fried said. “Literature’s okay. I like some literature. But neither one of them do you really have this clear thing that you come out with, so why don’t you have a combo humanities (degree) and you can cut the number of courses you have, which cuts the number of faculty that you have, which cuts your payroll.”
His last major suggestion for lowering costs is to boost the use of dual-credit programs that allow students to transform their last two years of high school into their first two years of college. While such programs were logistically challenging in the past, Fried said the process is far more feasible and affordable today thanks to online learning. And he said most high-school students have the ability to successfully complete college-level general education courses.
“They are mentally capable of doing the work,” Fried said. “I wouldn’t say every kid in high school is capable of doing college work, but a majority can do college-level work.”
The primary obstacle to lowering college costs is that many people are making a living off outdated or inefficient processes now embedded in the college system. College leaders and politicians alike tend to worry more about angering those individuals than providing an affordable college degree for the average citizen.
And, Fried notes, there are cultural attitudes about college that preserve inefficiency. For example, some people tout the importance of a nebulous “college experience” as a major benefit. But that experience, which often boils down to things like drinking beer with fellow students and attending sporting events, is something a large share of students are willing to forgo in order to achieve career objectives at lower cost.
“You can provide people an education without a ‘college experience,’” Fried said, “and there’s actually a surplus—a rather large surplus—of ‘college experience’ supply right now.”
Also, many jobs that now require a college degree from applicants involve work that requires far less education that what one gets with a four-year degree. In many instances, Fried noted employers require a college degree simply to show an applicant “can write coherently, and add and subtract.”
“There are a lot easier ways to get that skill and to demonstrate that skill than 40 college courses,” Fried said. “There are really like four courses that if you passed a college freshman/sophomore class, you should be able to roll in most jobs.”
Undergraduate students typically subsidize professors’ research work through their tuition and fees, yet get little direct benefit from that added cost because professors who do research teach less. And much of the resulting research is of questionable value. Fried, who has held a research position in his academic career, said some states are transforming too many schools into research universities, which raises costs and lowers student value.
“It’s moved down to regional colleges and they’re doing research,” Fried said. “Look at what they’re doing and it is just a total ‘punching my card for the year’ sort of exercise.”
He believes political forces make wholesale change a long shot, but argues policymakers can start moving the needle to keep college costs in check—if they have the will power.
“I always want to do more for less,” Fried said, “but in the world of government, I’d be happy if you could just do more for the same.”