Trustees Want Big Bucks, But We Deserve a Better Bargain from Higher Ed

Several well-informed and well-intentioned trustees of the University of Washington wrote an editorial that appeared in the Seattle Times this week decrying the drop in state funding.  They made two good points:

  1. The cost of educating a student at the University of Washington is about $400 less today, in inflation adjusted dollars, than it was 20 years ago.
  2. Twenty years ago, the state government paid 80 percent of the cost of a student’s education and a student paid 20 percent. Today, the state pays 30 percent of the cost, and the student pays 70 percent.

They conclude that we need to buck up for more of the same.  The problem that they fail to address is that over the last two decades higher ed has become increasingly obsolete.  Cost were spiraling up while anywhere anytime learning should have made them spiral down.  A degree is still valuable for individuals but the return on investment for most degrees has dropped as costs have risen–particularly in comparison to good inexpensive alternatives. The drop in state support is approximately equal to the productivity gain we should have experienced in higher education over the last decade if the system had been reinvented like every other sector of society.
Yesterday, Jeff Selingo, editorial director at The Chronicle of Higher Education, wrote an editorial in the NYTimes called Fixing College where he lamented the “lost decade,” from 1999 to 2009 where most institutions of higher learning were fat and happy and produced few productivity gains.  He urged “better use of technology in the classroom” and “more online learning.”  Selingo said “We can’t afford another lost decade.”
In a post today, Stanford professor Nick Parlante said, “Colleges are still going to be packed. That’s true of Stanford and three dozen elites that dot need to worry about enrollment but it’s not true of the pricy third tier college down the street or the state U that continues to raise tuition by double digit percentages annually.  The party is over.  The alternative are plentiful and getting better.
Seligno was criticizing the bloated $40k price tag of UVA.  I’m confident that very good undergraduate programs can be offered for a third of that (call it $7k for room & board, $7k for academics).   There’s no going back to the full state subsidies of the past.  It’s time for innovation in higher education.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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