A Plan for a $10K Degree: A Response

A new proposal is out from Third Way, authored by Anya Kamenetz. It makes an argument for a radical restructuring of higher education in pursuit of a radically cheaper degree. I plan to write a few blog posts on its proposals. This is the first.

There’s many things to like about the plan.

I like the scope of the plan. It’s an ambitious plan, but it starts from the premise we have a rich public educational infrastructure in the U.S. that needs to be reconfigured, not abandoned, dismantled, privatized, or routed around. For that reason alone I think the proposal is worth serious debate.

I like that it correctly diagnoses much of what ails education: it’s a system where competition has distorted our institution’s priorities, resulting in competition in the wrong areas, and a structure that does not work to accomplish our stated mission.

And Anya’s six “steps” are, I think, roughly correct:

  • Reduce and restructure personnel
  • End the perk wars
  • Focus on college completion
  • Scale up blended learning
  • Streamline offerings
  • Rethink college (system) architecture

So it’s a good pass at the issue. At the same time there are some issues at the detail level that require elaboration. Today I want to talk about three pieces of the plan — the $10K premise, the personnel restructuring, and the perk wars.

The $10,000 Degree

I’m not sure how we got to this $10,000 degree number. I went to college in 1987; at that time my four year tuition was around ten to fifteen thousand dollars. If Wolfram Alpha is right, that would be $20,000-$30,000 in today’s dollars. And that isn’t counting the much more sizable state subsidy that we had at that time.

The $10,000 degree also doesn’t jive with what we know about cost in other sectors. A half decent high school will spend $10,000 per student per year on instruction in a flattened no-frills model that looks much like Anya’s proposal. Even assuming a subsidy could half the student side of that (a big assumption), we’re still left with $20,000 for four years.

As a final check, we can look at cost per graduate numbers as they currently stand, and see that they range from about $28,000 to $500,000. The “disruptive” school that Clayton Christensen wrote an entire book about, BYU Idaho, has gotten cost per completion down to about $30,000 a year. A policy that shoots for a result that is likely a couple standard deviations out from the mean is a policy designed to fail.

I’d argue that if we are going to pick a number, it should be one grounded in data, not rhetoric. If you want to see what overly rhetorical stretch goals do to a social institution, you can look at No Child Left Behind’s targets have done to K-12. A $20,000 or $25,000 degree is not as sexy as its Texas cousin, but represents a difficult target that may be achievable, would largely solve the student debt problem, and would not create the sort of unprofitable schism that talk of $10,000 degrees leads to.

Reduce and Restructure Personnel

Here Anya breaks the traditional roles in a university into three roles: Academic Advisors/Mentors, Instructor/Instructional Technologists, and Professor/Instructional Designers. I applaud the rethinking of roles, and think these role delineations are better than what we have currently, but wonder to what extent they are sustainable. People I know all over the country are trying to hire instructional designers and instructional technologists right now. They are incredibly rare, and much more expensive than your average college professor. They also have profitable options in private industry not always available to the average history professor.

And of course finding people highly qualified in their academic discipline who have instructional design experience as well only gets more difficult (and hence, more expensive).

The problem here is that the narrative that schools are expensive because they are administration/staff heavy is in conflict with the narrative that we need more expertise in delivery. In companies that compete for instructional design bids, positions are far more specialized and role-differentiated than one finds at colleges. This is because expertise is rare and expensive, and must be shared across multiple projects.

Ending the Perk Wars

We should end the perk wars, agreed. Campuses are going to have to increasingly organize around the assumption that their students don’t live on campus, and develop communities that are less focused on “campus life” and more focused on “college life”. The attempts to lure richer students to campus with coutry club features has to stop.

Anya also suggests that extracurriculars should be defunded, however, and that is a social justice issue for me. Just as exiling art classes from grade school has resulted in art classes for rich kids, and nothing for the poor, so exiling extracurriculars from state schools will result in a subpar incomplete education for lower-income students. I learned much from working at the radio station at my college and working on the literary journal — much more than I did in most classes. Many students will tell you the same about the clubs they belonged to, and many faculty will tell you they had more impact as advisers to these clubs than in their classes.

More next week, and a note on bloat

Next week I’ll go through the rest of the plan (or at least the next third of it). Looking at the few points I’ve dealt with today, I think the one theme that strikes me is that bloat doesn’t work the way people think it does. As companies become more efficient, roles differentiate, and there ends up being somewhat less frontline staff.

The tendency is to call all non-frontline staff “bloat”, whether they are lab maintenance specialists, instructional technologists, or student financial aid experts. Programs are similar: extracurricular activities (the Geology club) are “bloat”, whereas Geology 101 is core, regardless of the relative impact of each of these on education.

This doesn’t happen in any other industry I’m aware of. We don’t look at a software company and declare that everyone who is not a programmer is “bloat”. Yet the truth is that many elements of interface design that are dealt with by programmers early on in a company’s history are moved to interface designers and human factors experts. Product features that were once the scope of the senior coder are moved into “management” areas, such as product leads. This is because while there are a select number of people that can be expert in many things in a five-person start up, you cannot build a company on them. To build a company you find experts in specific areas, and build the management structure that allows those experts to work together (we can debate on what that structure should look like, it can certainly be agile in nature, but it must be put in place).

All of this allows companies to deliver a better product at a reduced cost. My guess is that if education is truly going to get cheaper we will need to see more role differentiation not less, and start considering extracurricular activities in light of how they provide sometimes invisible support for the curriculum. Most of all we have to get beyond simplistic definitions of “bloat” and move towards a more nuanced understanding of a decades-long shift of instructional and advising expertise from faculty to staff.

More to come…

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31 thoughts on “A Plan for a $10K Degree: A Response

  1. I’ve been a manager in a range of education areas and the call to reduce admin, support staff, ‘bureaucrats etc, without fail, comes from people with no real understanding of how complex organizations run.
    Bloat is almost a redundant term in the modern world. Organizations are organic, and in a very real way staff numbers are almost self leveling (unless your manager is a total 18th century moron).
    Every restructure, remodeling and ‘functional realignment’ i have been involved in (nearly always associated with a new manager or change in government) has involved a rapid and public offloading of staff, followed by a very quiet and slow rehiring back to the original number. Because regardless of your ideology, that’s how many people it takes to provide the service!

    • This is a great point. I don’t know that I believe that bloat is non-existent — certainly recent reports on the University of Minnesota show there can be a lot of waste. But it takes a very detailed understanding of an enterprise to determine what might be unnecessary or could be streamlined. Usually that has to be attacked from both the mission and personnel side — often *bloat* is more about irrelevant missions that have been picked up over the years than “extra people”.

  2. Pingback: The $10,000 Degree: A Response, Part II | Hapgood

  3. hi. not knowing the ins and outs of a US degree, is 10 thousand considered very good value for a degree? my only prior knowledge on this subject is the 1983 movie starring Richard Pryor – Brewsters Millions, where at the end of the plot the accountant for Brewster (Pryor) claims to be able to get a degree with 20 thousand.

    30 years ago that would amount to quite a lot of dough.

    Anyway I think that these days in Europe, one can enroll (not get) on a degree, requirements permitting of course, for about 16,000 – 18,000 euros. As a national.

    pardon me for the blinkers, thats the name of the game. good post.

  4. It is quite astonishing to see the cost of an American college degree, public or private.

    I just checked the website for the University of Toronto, (my alma mater, BA, 1979) — the highest cost for undergrad arts (domestic fees) is $5,865. No, it’s not missing a zero. My annual tuition costs (yes) were $660 a year. It allowed me to live on my own; to graduate wholly debt-free; to start my journalism career as a FT freelancer (see: wholly debt-free.)

    A low-cost degree offers many benefits beyond a life unburdened by impossible fees and post-grad debt.

    I agree that extra-curriculars are essential — we don’t spend every waking minute of those four years sitting in a classroom or library or lab. My life was forever changed by two activities at U of T (Canada’s top school, then as now)…writing for the weekly newspaper (which gave me clips which allowed me to start writing for national publications, paid, while an undergrad) and an exchange program with UNC/Chapel Hill, which was a week there with them and a week spent in snowy, icy Toronto for them in February.

    People who live in other countries watch American post-secondary education, and its costs, with some horror, and gratitude for their own domestic affordable options that level the playing field. That’s another elephant in the living room…

    • Costs vary depending on degree – a year in a BS degree program tends to cost more than a year in a BA degree program. In Frankfurt, Germany the Goethe Uni, a public university, has a budget of about 450m and about 45k students this year – average costs of about 10k/student/yr. Students pay 0 tuition, and fees run about $500/yr and include a public transit pass. No football team, no football coach, no outdoors club. You can get beer in the cafeteria (which has substantially improved its menu in the last few years). Big classes are an issue, and beginning students have to fight to talk to professors.

      But 10k seems to offer a reasonalbe baseline when talking about the cost per student per year of post-secondary education in the first world. When you push the number down or up, what are the consequences? How is efficiency measured in this context? At what point do “losses” show up? How would you measure them? If these costs are going to be translated into a price, then that is a political choice.

      Clearly American university students and their parents have drunk the “educational marketplace” kool-aid. Vast numbers continue to insist that it can be a good investment to pay 50k per year for college. Their passivity and irrationality blows the minds of informed observers around the world.

      • Do you not think this is yet another instance of American exceptionalism — even when many other developed nations educate their citizens extremely well for much less money they refuse to get it? Except, of course, for those who are sending their sons and daughters north to McGill in Quebec or to St. Andrews in Scotland…I see a real herd mentality in what people are willing to try.

        College here is a sorting mechanism. Why risk being sorted into the wrong pile?

  5. I work in the Student Affairs division in a public university, and I do not see the work we do represented by what I’ve seen by this plan. The closest I see is Advisors/Mentors, but this lacks the specialization needed for what the Student Affairs division provides. In addition to student counseling and mentoring, Student Affairs departments provide important services including tutoring, orientation programs for incoming students, career services, support systems for International Students, guidance for filing student grievance, as well as programs to encourage cultural diversity and tolerance. The Student Affairs department I work for provides accommodations and services for students with disabilities, which is required under federal law.
    There could be a way to combine departments within the Student Affairs division to cut costs. As the model appears to me, it seems impractical for the logistical support and planning needed to provide services to students.

  6. poop! (i wuzz gonna say pschidt!) — you should-a gone to college in the later 1970’s! i wasn’t especially smart, but got some $$$ ’cause then there were GRANTS (which had a more dignified title, but were ) for older people who weren’t especially smart and also poverty-stricken.
    here it is, however many years later, and i can’t help but get the feeling that i’m being occasionally hired, promoted, etc. due to deference for senior citizens. glad i did what i did when i did.

  7. Excellent post. I work in higher ed, and I think a lot of the “bloat” comes from tenure. I think many schools are afraid to do away with tenure, but it is such an enormous waste of money and support staff–at least in my experience.

    • tenure does not contribute to the problem at all…it is one of the casualties of the corporatization of the university and is necessary in order to maintain academic freedom. universities are becoming more and more reliant on non-tenure track faculty as they become more corporatized as a result of the neoliberal assault on higher education. they are cutting the cost of labor while increasing tuition. it’s just become yet another sector open to exploitation and extreme profit-making

  8. I think there’s some confusion here — the article I am writing about is not talking about $10,000/yr student cost. It’s $10,000 for a degree. That’s why it’s so impossible, at least at current state contribution levels.

    • I think the confusion lies with Kamenetz. She argues for a price without first addressing cost. She starts with something like the current average price for a college degree (does she even get specific about how she determined the price?), and then argues down to 10k. Some of her ideas are good, i.e. the perks. Some are not so good, i.e. emphasis on reducing personnel and increasing use of virtual learning environments. By all means get the coaches and presidential administrative assistents off the payroll. Real teachers are vital and teaching staff has been underfinanced for a long time.

      Kamenetz’ presumption may be that individuals pay for degrees, i.e. buy products in the educational marketplace which might be something like a shopping mall but for educational services. Rational arguments for price however begin with an examination of costs followed by a determination of the extent to which beneficiaries of the product or service can pay. Education shares a gray area with bridges, highways, harbors, armies, banking services: there’s a legitimate argument for the state to pay all costs up front for these infrastructure items and to use taxes to finance their maintenance and expansion. Many western European social democracies have adopted this argument.

      Notions of cost in higher education are obscure, perhaps moreso in the USA where the elite system muddles pricing even more with prestige premiums. Unfortunately the system of higher education in the US has been captured by the elite model. There was a time when pricing power was shared more equitably between elite and public institutions. But about 30 years ago the elites won and tuitions have risen accordingly.

  9. I think there are other issues that need to be addressed for degree reform: Technology fees that are over $100 per semester, health center fees when you have insurance, monumental physical fitness fees although you never walk into their multi-million dollar sports complex, and $400-800 parking passes for campus unless you want to walk sometimes miles if you commute more than five miles. The fees mentioned are semester and yearly, depending on the fee, and I didn’t even remember every fee or the amount, but they will prevent this from ever being attainable. I completely agree we need to focus on ending “perk wars”.

  10. I wonder if there could be an additional type of degree in which college profs and other educators created degree programs based on areas of expertise, rather than geographical location. I’d be happy to team up with other psychologists, sociologists, even neurologists… to create a behavioral science program that combines blended learning and other collaborative efforts. Why should my education efforts be limited to my (more expensive) campus teaching?

  11. I completely agree with you that something must be done, but it should also be pragmatic and reachable. Good job giving actual examples. I think we need to make electives and most non core classes optional. There’s no reason that my friend, a history major, needs to complete 3 levels of math, and 2 levels of science, along with a plethora of liberal studies electives which have included things as diverse as theater and geology. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed my geography class that I took as an elective, but I would rather have had the $1,000 in my pocket and more time to concentrate on my core classes.

  12. It’s not just the “admin” staff that are targeted when it comes to “bloat”; the arts degree staff also tend to take a hit here in New Zealand as these degrees are almost seen as a waste of time.

    I personally just spent four years completing an arts degree at a cost of NZ$60,000 or so (US$50,400) coming out with English, Spanish and Math with a plan next year to spend a whole lot more in becoming a high school teacher. $10K degree – nice idea but totally impractical when universities barely have the money to scrape by as it is.

    My question is this: where would anyone at a university be without the arts and the admin staff? Arts degrees have the highest enrollments of any course and admin staff have to be there to keep the university running behind the scenes. Without admin: kiss the scholarships office goodbye, kiss student support services goodbye, kiss the library staff and the research library goodbye… Has this Anya been to university to know how invaluable these people are?

    Sincerely,
    The girl currently making a living off her English degree, once a university employee supporting the student exchange coordinator.

  13. I used college as a personal vacation transferring over 10 times. I finally finished my degree after 14 years and 12 colleges. But the greatest value I received was taking 4 years off from school when I got to work for an entrepreneur named Jim Clayton who taught me so much more then I could have ever learned in school. I just started my blog about my adventure but I hope to get to a discussion about creating more entrepreneurs and more affordable degrees like the discussion above. http://14yearslater.com/

  14. He’s not desperately trying to look like a big shot. Gene
    Wojciechowski’s ode to college football is a great
    read. Ole Miss and Mississippi State moving the Egg Bowl away from
    Jackson, Miss.

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