This one is always good for an argument.
Suppose you wanted to go live at a luxury resort for four years. You’d expect that to cost, wouldn’t you? (No one is going to write an editorial raging about how if you wanted to live at Club Med it would cost you at least $50,000 a year – probably more.) So why are people surprised that it costs a lot – really a lot – to send a kid to college for four years? College is the sort of thing that seems like it should cost a lot: beautiful buildings on nice land, nice gym, nice green spaces, expensive equipment, large staff that have to be well-paid because they provide expert services. If you want to be puzzled about something, figure out how and why it was ever cheap, not why it costs now.
But this thought that colleges and universities are like luxury resorts, so of course it costs, is not very comforting to apologists for the cost of higher ed. Four years of resort living does not sound like a model that can, in fact, be available to everyone. If the democratic dream is that every kid can go to college, and if the dream of college is that every college kid can live for four years in the equivalent of an expensive resort, then the dream dies.
[UPDATE: It seems my Club Med analogy has been misunderstand, and that is understandable. I’m not suggesting that colleges are literally like Club Med any more than I am suggesting that Club Med has a university library, just because it costs as much as college. I am just suggesting that we should see it as normal and to be expected that if you go and live somewhere that provides you with a lot of stuff, much of which you would expect to be costly, you should expect it to cost you.]
It has often been pointed out that universities and colleges are all trying to be Rolls Royce; no one is trying to be Kia. Existing institutions don’t compete on bottom line cost to students because cutting costs would undercut prestige and these institutions are competing to be prestigious; and, anyway, most students get some financial aid, so cost isn’t really transparent and you have a third-party payer problem, price-sensitivity-wise. Suffice it to say that a number of factors conspire to make it the case that the market for higher ed doesn’t look like the market for, say, cars, with luxury vehicles for a few and basically functional, affordable options for the masses. (No one wants to be the Crazy Eddie of Higher Ed: We’ve slashed tuition so much we must be insaaane! Nor do students or parents want Crazy Eddie, exactly. But no one wants to be crushed by debt either.)
It seems inevitable that something’s got to give. One possibility is the Western Governors University-style substantially online/competency-based model, the goal being to get kids through asap in a no-frills sort of way. Another model would be to try to offer traditional programs that are high quality but spartan in certain ways. A traditional liberal arts education but with fewer major and elective options, say. A common core as cost-cutting measure. We teachers complain about how the problem is that there is so damn much administrative overhead. True! But it’s also true – so I am told – that one of the main reasons administration grows like kudzu is we want our students to have so many options and opportunities; all that needs organization. Simple programs, with fewer options, could be a lot cheaper.
I find it somewhere between depressing and repulsive to think of how the whole thing could be least badly downsized. You could hold classes in all those suburban malls that are having so much trouble! Teach English 101 next door to the struggling nail salon. It’s win-win! At the same time, I realize that making the perfect the enemy of the good is a mistake. Profs. aren’t snobs about all this, in my experience. They’re idealists. If you teach college, you have a strong sense of what the ideal college experience should be like. You know that reality typically falls short, as things are. But it’s hard to give up the possibility of the ideal, in making your model. Then again, a Kia just isn’t going to be a Rolls Royce. It’s not good enough to say that, ideally, college should be a transformative personal experience, not just a bunch of online videos and assessment. I suppose, ideally, driving should be a transformative personal experience – you should feel how this baby takes the curves! – but that doesn’t mean everyone should go into debt, at the age of 18, to buy a Ferrari. Not if you can figure out how to build a Kia, so you can just plain get to your job.
(I’m not even touching on the problems of adjunctification. No one wants to spend 5 years getting a dissertation just to teach for a low salary for some online outfit – just for example. But do feel free to vent in comments.)
It would make a lot of sense to cut military spending and use that money to solve the whole problem, wouldn’t it? Why the hell shouldn’t every kid have the opportunity to go to college? College is expensive because it’s great! We’re a rich society. But I don’t see any big infusion of public money coming down the pipe. Can things go on as they are? Or must the whole higher education paradigm shift – maybe even collapse? If so, what’s the least bad way that can happen?