Guest Columnists

Private College Comes with a Price Tag

by William J. Byron

The price tag on a college education keeps going up. Student indebtedness is correspondingly on the rise. Some are saying that the obvious way to control the costs is to increase the student-to-faculty ratio, for what they are now calling “in place” education, and introduce online instruction to break the grip of classroom boundaries on the teaching-learning transaction.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Faculty, in particular, argue for the value and effectiveness of face-to-face, in-class contact, not to mention benefits from interaction with fellow students who simply aren’t there if the instruction is taken online.

Mega-classes are impersonal and undesirable. They represent an economic solution (increase the number of paying consumers while holding down the number of salary-collecting suppliers). But economic solutions are not always good for educational quality.

E-learning works well in some places. Elite producers of online instruction, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, are “exporting” courses online to interested individuals and institutions.

It is possible now, and perhaps soon will be common, for colleges to negotiate “import” agreements. This will enable them not only to receive but to deliver quality courses – exported from larger research institutions – for credit to their registered students.

But, liberal arts college faculty ask, are research universities the place where you are likely to find quality teaching? That question inevitably draws a split vote.

Steve Ruth, professor of public policy at George Mason University, thinks that the “import-export strategy” can deliver high-quality courses. He sees it as a possible solution to “tuition’s through-the-roof cost spiral.” He makes that argument in the March/April 2012 issue of IEEE Internet Computing, an online publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (known in the trade as the I-Triple-E).

Thirty years ago, an assistant dean at the business school of Temple University in Philadelphia told me that he noticed something different as the new Temple commuter students arrived that fall. He saw something different about the resident newcomers as well.

Upon reflection, he concluded that more red-haired, blue-eyed Irish-Catholic and dark-haired, brown-eyed Italian-Catholic graduates of the city’s archdiocesan Catholic high schools where choosing Temple instead of the local Catholic colleges and universities where their older brothers and sisters had matriculated. It had nothing to do with religion, he said, and everything to do with tuition.

The private college price tag had hit a breaking point for the row-house, working-class Philadelphia Catholic families and the low price of state-related Temple University began to look like a good alternative.

Tuition-dependent Catholic colleges around the country are nervously monitoring the size of their respective applicant pools and closely watching the number of paid deposits as they look to the fall and the size of the incoming freshman class. For years now, they have increased their “discount rates” – cuts to tuition price – to attract cost-conscious (and debt-burdened) students. This cannot continue.

A discount rate is like a cholesterol count. It can signal the approach of an institutional stroke or heart attack. Some colleges will not survive without creative solutions that, ideally, faculty will design and, inevitably, faculty will have to accept. Reality is closing in. [hr]Jesuit Father William J. Byron is a university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia.[hr]