Why Am I Paying $110,000 a Year in College Tuition?

No, I’m not happy about it. And I have a few ideas on how to shake things up.

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

The author in one of his more desperate moments. Photograph by Adam Jones

There are some jobs I would love to have. Professional baseball player. Writer for Saturday Night Live. U.S. Congressman. With the exception of baseball (I’m only five-foot-six, unfortunately), I think I’d be pretty good at those jobs. But you know what job I’d be really good at? Running a university or college.

I’ve navigated my 10-person company profitably through the economy’s ups and downs over the past 20 years. And now I have the “pleasure” of paying my kids’ college tuitions as all three of them enter their sophomore year. Yes, all three at once. Two go to state colleges (one in-state, the other out-of-state), and one goes to a private university. Total tab: $110,000 a year.

My kids love their schools. They’re happy. I’m happy that they’re happy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. And from what I’ve seen over the past year, as both a parent and a business owner, there is lots of room for improvement. A university president? Me? Here’s what I’d do if given the chance.

Everyone would work harder.

My kids generally start classes after Labor Day and wrap up their finals by mid-December. Then they have a month off before returning to class in mid-January. A few weeks later, they have … spring break! Then the final push to the finish line in early May. Sprinkled into the year are long weekends and various public holidays, too. I did the math: They spend four months out of every year not at school. And when they are there, their schedule normally consists of one or maybe two classes a day. (And remember … professors are enjoying an equally cushy schedule.)

Can everyone just work a little harder? Does any business operate like this? I prefer the military model. Just ask any kid who attends the Naval Academy, for example, about the schedule. It’s a 12-hour class-study-exercise-eat-study program every day. Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. But there’s a middle ground. I would change the schedule to a normal workday that runs year-round. This would easily reduce a four-year degree to a three-year degree. And that would lower tuition by 25 percent.

Tenure would go away.

In the academic world, I’m told, you can achieve tenure status only after you’ve put in years of hard work and performed vast amounts of research. In my world, after years of hard work and vast amounts of research, I get to … die. And once tenure is achieved — short of some blatant misconduct like sexual harassment or voting Republican — you can never be fired. Ever. You have a job for life.

Outside of academic-land, there’s no such thing as tenure. No business can run on such a model. To stay efficient, productive and profitable, and to grow, my company needs the flexibility to add and remove employees. It can’t be burdened with unnecessary overhead. Removing tenure would significantly reduce a university’s fixed costs. It would allow the allocation of funds elsewhere or free up additional funds that could lower tuition. And rather than being an obstacle to hiring, it would likely attract those smart, motivated people who want to work around other smart, motivated people in an innovative atmosphere — and not have to deal with the frustrations of seeing older, less competent professors earning a guaranteed salary just because they got there first.

The practical would be emphasized over the theoretical.

Colleges are supposed to be places of learning, but they’re also supposed to be places where students are prepared for jobs. When I hire a marketing student, I’m really not concerned if he can tell me how Coke built a more powerful brand than Pepsi or why Microsoft took market share away from IBM in the ’80s. Graduating from college with good grades tells me that you’re a good student and have the raw skills to hopefully/possibly/maybe be a good employee. But I need more than that. I don’t care if you’re a science, math or poetry major — the truth is that every organization needs someone who can get to work on time; who understands the business, software and procedures; and who can write, communicate, work with others, and complete tasks on time and competently.

How do we ensure more college kids can do that? More tests, assignments and group projects, and more training and required classes on these topics, regardless of the major. And more involvement from local companies who provide actual people to teach actual skills-based materials that students can apply in the real world.

Co-op experience would be required to graduate.

Drexel University has it right — you help kids get jobs, in the form of co-op programs, while they’re still in school. I’m all for enjoying your younger years before committing yourself to a life inside a cubicle. But too many college students are graduating with little relevant work experience. My clients need people who have experience and job skills. Most businesses don’t have the resources to provide a lot of training. My college would have a co-op program similar to Drexel’s, where the university and its extensive community of alumni are committed to finding students work that will better prepare them for the reality of life out of school.

Technology would be used better.

My kids sometimes have to suffer through the required (and very critical) math, business and science tutorials taught by inexpensive grad students who’ve come from far-flung places with not-so-great language skills. They also have to endure boring lectures by professors who are very smart and accomplished researchers, but not-so-great communicators.

Solution? Colleges need to adopt some of the very available services like Khan Academy, Curious.com, Google Hangouts on Air and Google Helpouts, which would allow professors who actually speak English to broadcast their lessons to students wherever they are, record them for future viewing, and even schedule one-on-one video chat conferences to answer questions. A few brave universities are dabbling in this area — but it’s still not being taken very seriously.

And news flash: Just because a college offers wi-fi doesn’t mean it’s “embracing technology.” Truly doing so means embracing the services that are now offered through better cloud and video capabilities. To create a year-round environment of learning, why not require more online lectures, testing and study groups, so students can still complete classes if they’re abroad or out of the area? Why not use the very best lecturers from other universities to deliver content to students at colleges that don’t have that expertise on-site? Wouldn’t this provide a more flexible, user-friendly, lower-cost environment, and a better educational product to boot? Wouldn’t it enable universities to accommodate more students from all over the world and drive more revenues, too?

Financial aid wouldn’t be such a mystery.

My experience with the financial aid programs at my kids’ schools has been disappointing and frustrating. These offices are understaffed and overwhelmed. And on top of that, most parents (like me) are too busy and too ignorant of all the choices and nuances to really take full advantage of what’s available. The federal aid system is complex, and there’s no way you can be aware of all the potential grants and programs to help you finance your kids’ educations. There are too many parents (like me) who are probably not getting the aid or help we deserve to make college more affordable. And any businessperson will tell you that affordability adds to value, which adds to the overall experience of the product, which then makes a happy customer. No one wants to leave money on the table. If I were in charge, I’d allocate more resources to this area, with the goal of making sure every parent of every student maximizes whatever financial resources are available for them.

Professors would be paid based on how well they teach.

Students learn more when they have better teachers. My best professor taught accounting — he buried us in assignments, grilled us in class, and kept us on our toes. He was tough, but we learned. Unfortunately, I also had plenty of drones. It’s human nature to seek out the easiest teachers who require the least amount of work. (There are websites entirely devoted to helping students find them.) But we all know this isn’t an education, nor is it what I’m paying for.

It’s not hard to evaluate professors. Many colleges do it already to varying degrees. But do student evaluations currently make much difference? These results should figure into a professor’s overall evaluation and compensation. In the end, the number one priority of universities is to teach our kids — and not just do studies of how many teaspoons of peanut butter a monkey needs to consume before contracting some rare form of cancer.

Our customers would be redefined.

For some inexplicable reason, my kids’ colleges only conduct their correspondence with them, not me. Except for one thing. Can you guess? The tuition! For that important communication, we parents are fully informed with letters, invoices, emails and cumulative statements. My child is important, but the reality is that I’m the customer. I’m paying the bills. And I want to know what I’m getting for my money. I get it that we want our kids to be more independent — they’re over 18. But the reality is that they’re still just kids. And they’re not paying. If I were running a college, I would make sure my customers (that is, the parents) had access and full communication. That’s because as a parent, I want to know if there are any academic or disciplinary issues with my kid. The diploma is the product. If anything is going on that might call into question the award of that diploma to my kid, I want to be fully aware of the situation well before it becomes a catastrophe.

Profits (gasp!) would be shared with (gasp!) investors.

The best-run organizations have some type of profit incentive. My university would have a balance of public and private representation as owners and board members. I’d change up the financial model. I want outside investors who desire a return on their investment. They’d drive better financial reporting, ownership and accountability. They’d question how resources are applied and infrastructure money is spent. (For example, do college students really need to live in dorms equivalent to a five-star hotel, or could money be either saved or better spent elsewhere?) Universities need to have profit motives if they’re to be run effectively.

Okay, the idea of me playing pro baseball is crazy. But are these such crazy ideas? Maybe to someone in academia. But not to any business owner. And definitely not to most of the suffering parents I know.

Originally published as “I Pay $110,00 a Year in Tuition” in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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  • College Administrator

    You should look at the Drexel quarter system in reference to your “work harder” comment. University is only really closed on major holidays and the week between Christmas an new year. Students go 10 weeks and have one week of (for the most part) and go year-round. Nice model, along with the co-op you mentioned (and in the classroom practical is the center of most classes). But do remember people are already working hard. Just because your child is only in class maybe 2 times a day, doesn’t mean professors and other staff just sit around outside of class.

    I will argue that parents shouldn’t be sent all communication the student gets. Part of college is teaching students the skills they need to succeed in the real world. Part of this is reading mail and emails and being able to follow up on what they need to themselves. Unfortunately so many parents I see are happy and ready to swoop in before their child even reads their emails and does everything for them. Everytime I get a parent call, I am happy to offer answers of what their student can do to solve the situation or complete the requirement. It’s so frustrating to try to treat students like adults who can handle things themselves when parents won’t let them (and many timers they are happy for their parents to handle it, but they need to be challenged).

    • Ali G

      Not to mention federal regulations that prohibit university officials from communicating certain information about the student to anybody but the student without signed consent. I am not sure if Mr. Marks is saying his university would break the law, but it sounds a little bit like it.

  • “For some inexplicable reason, my kids’ colleges only conduct their correspondence with them, not me.”

    It’s not at all inexplicable, it’s a federal law called FERPA. There are legal limitations on what colleges can discuss with parents without getting explicit permission from the student. I find it extremely hard to believe you haven’t heard of FERPA at this point if you have 3 children in college.

    • Zach

      I found this assertion the most ironic out of the whole editorial. As far as I can tell, he wants his kids to grow up, get a real job, and pay their own way. Yet, by calling himself, not his kids, the real “consumer” in the higher-ed market, he is undermining his kids’ own ability to control their education–which subsequently infantilizes them and makes it more difficult for them to grow up, get a real job,…you get the idea. This article is just ridiculous.

      • Michele G Rogers

        Further, not every parent is the customer anyhow. Some students for the bill themselves entirely through loans, grants, & even their own pocket. The university can’t separate all that out & determine who the “customer” is for the sake of mailing correspondence. However, I agree with most of the rest of this article. Education has become a profitable industry through which education has taken a back seat to the business model.

  • Jessica

    So, out of your three children, not a single one got any scholarship or grant? I went to state school and without any scholarships it would have been $8000-$10000 a year. You’re averaging over $30000 each.

  • ncmathsadist

    Well, if you have a superior system, why don’t you just up and start a college? Form an investment group and get going. Show us all how it’s done.

  • NS

    As a grad student at her 3rd university I have somewhat mixed feelings about this article. I’m not one to comment but I feel the urge to shut you up. I want to remind you of your ability to pay your children’s tuition, congratulations. I’m also assuming that if you can afford to pay $110,000 a year for your children’s tuition that you can also afford them the right to not work during college and provide them with food, going out money, clothes, books, whatever else a young adult “requires.” Please keep in mind that there are those who are less fortunate who are trying to become more fortunate. They are working part-time jobs and going to school. So while a student is not in class for “one or maybe two classes a day,” they are working, whether it be on homework or to pay for their school.

    As most have commented on the FERPA I will refrain my comments of enabling your children to stay children.

    Bringing in other professor’s to teach via telecommunications seems like a great idea. However, if all colleges did this what would make your college worth going to over the others? There is a reason people want to attend Ivy league schools over other schools- the quality and expectations of the education received. It sounds as though you’re trying to equal the playing field by creating colleges with the same professors.

    To end on a good note- because I believe that your article was meant to be helpful- I do agree with the tenure comments. It is frustrating to be paying for a course, especially in a Ph.D. program, where I am receiving a half assed, mediocre lecture from a professor that has no worry of being fired. However, a lot of money comes from grant money from the professor’s research. Most major universities and colleges push their professors to do research because of this. Therefore, reducing the professor’s time to spend with students. Also, sometimes as a side effect, attracting people who simply need a venue to perform their research without having the urge to teach about their research.

    I would rework the teaching part of the education system, since you want to rework things, in regards to “working harder.” It’s not about “working harder” and making the students do more work, it’s about making them worker wiser. Busy work of group projects and more tests is absurd. Instead, concentrate on the curriculum being covered and pushing it to be more applicable to the real world, not how many tests the students take or projects they complete so they have to be working 12-hours a day like you, the white collared business man of a 10 person company.

    My take home message is remember those who do not come from a family that was able to put dinner on the table every night. Remember those who are working to lessen the gap between the 1%’ers and the 99%’ers. Please also remember that in the time where students “aren’t working” they are learning life lessons that can never be taught in a classroom. They are learning what it means to be locked out of their dorm room, drunk without their keys because they overstepped their bounds with their roommate or what it means to laugh so hard with their best friend they couldn’t breath. These things translate into the real world and not a professor, nor a parent could ever teach your child this. They have to learn it on their own, which is why free time is essential to a college student’s schedule.

    A poor college student who worked her ass off without daddy’s help.

    • Terry Jue


  • Zach

    This article does little more than to illustrate how ignorant the author is of the real workings of academia. First of all, I would like to know precisely how the author suggests “everyone would work harder.” I know plenty of professors who work 70+ hour weeks (12 hour days, 6 days a week). I bet this would astound the average person who subscribes to the common trope of the “cushy” life of the college professor, while at the same time patting themselves on the back for how “hard” they work in their M-F 9-5 job (for those of you who couldn’t learn from your “drone” of a math professor, that’s 40 hrs/week, not taking into account the hour per day you spend at lunch). When professors are not teaching, they’re researching. And whether the author likes it or not, it is research, not teaching, that is the primary determinant for whether or not a professor gains tenure. That brings me to my next point: the author’s portrayal of tenure is plainly misleading. While gaining tenure is a significant achievement in any academician’s life, it is far from the guarantee of a job of life that it may have once been. Rather, it is a guarantee that the professor will have the “privilege” of maintaining for the rest of their career the same breakneck-pace of research, teaching, advising, publishing, and grant-writing that they maintained for the seven-or-so years leading up to tenure. If a professor fails to bring in grant funding for long enough, their career is effectively over–whether or not they have tenure. These are the facts. There are so many other aspects of this editorial that I found deeply insulting and asinine. I normally enjoy reading Philadelphia magazine, but this article was just over the top.

    • JM

      Professors rarely teach more than a couple classes which rarely add up to more than 10 hours a week. They have TA’s to do their grading. Most of them have had the same lesson plans for years. They could work harder. They just don’t have motivation.

      • PD

        With all due respect I don’t think you understand what a professor does.

        1. 10 hours a week of teaching often means 10+ hours of preparation (a good professor does not simply recycle class material) and another 10 hrs of grading. That’s upwards of 30 hours before having to meet/advise/mentor students, supervise graduate students, participate on various committees, conduct research etc. The average academic works 40-60 hrs a week while semester is in session. They are “on call” 7 days a week and only are paid to work 9 months of the year. The other 3 months they continue to work (albeit at a lesser level) but don’t get paid for it.

        2. Not everyone has TA’s and even those who do they have to supervise these TA’s, and are often given additional responsibilities because they do have a TA.

        • sakky

          10 hours of teaching may indeed mean 10+ hours of preparation to avoid recycled material – if you’re a *good* professor. And yes, they may also spend many more hours upon those myriad other tasks you mentioned, but again, if you’re a *good* professor.

          But ay, that’s the rub – many professors, frankly, are not ‘good’. The truth is, once you have tenure, you don’t need to be a ‘good’ professor anymore. You are perfectly free to recycle all of your course material while also conducting the absolute bare minimum of mentoring and supervising graduate students or serving upon administrative committees, while doing a poor job at that. Nobody can stop you because nobody can fire you.

          Now, granted, many tenured professors are conscientious enough not to behave in such a manner. Many of them do indeed continue to develop new course material while also selflessly mentoring students, volunteering themselves onto a bevy of administrative tasks, researching vigorously, and a host of other duties.

          But the upshot is that they don’t *have* to do so. Tenure gives you the choice to continue to be a ‘good’ professor or not. And it is an undeniable fact that some tenured professors choose the latter.

      • Ross Woods

        They vary greatly from lazy to very hard working. Sometimes they work hard in admin, writing projects, etc, but don’t put as much time into teaching. It is easy to agree or disagree with anything based on overgeneralizations. And sometimes they cheat by getting TA’s to do most of their work.

    • sakky

      Actually, grant-funding is an issue only regarding a particular subset of academic fields that require extensive and expensive experimentation or fieldwork. Many academic fields require little of that. Humanities is perhaps being the most prominent example (you rarely need much grant funding to analyze French poetry or Dada artwork) but that sentiment also extends to many of the social sciences such as economics or political science. Indeed, I suspect that the majority of tenured economists have never received a single grant in their entire careers and likely never will, but rather are perfectly content with analyzing freely available government-published economic datasets or data from a private company that they were able to finagle (generally in exchange for some free consulting). And that’s assuming that you’ve actually conducting *empirical* research. Many professors – including even in the natural sciences – are pure theorists for which grants are often times unnecessary.

      But more to the point, I believe that the author’s description of tenure is more accurate than you’re willing to allow. I agree that a professor who, upon obtaining tenure, fails to maintain the breakneck pace that allowed him to obtain tenure in the first place will lose status. He might be stuck with the least desirable teaching assignments and the worst office space. He might be shunned by his colleagues. So if you choose to characterize that as the equivalent of one’s career being ‘effectively over’, that’s your prerogative. Nevertheless, it is still undeniably true that he has job security. As long as he completes his assigned teaching and administrative tasks – however cursorily – he can *never* be fired. Other than perhaps the civil service, such redoubtable job protection exists practically nowhere else in the country.

  • NewInPhilly

    Colleges communicate directly with the students because a large portion of students are also the ones footing the bill.
    Most of your “ideas” only work if the students don’t also have to worry about paying the bills and working to keep food on the table. My biggest frustration when I left college was lack of real world experience. But I couldn’t take an internship because I had to work to keep a roof over my head. It sucks, but that’s the reality.

  • CD

    By the logic here, people are only working when they are in meetings. So, if you or your staff are not in meetings, you are all sitting around doing nothing, right? I’d love to work at your company!

    Classes are basically the equivalent of meetings. What that means is that there is an immense amount of work that goes into prepping for the class – this is certainly the case on the part of the person who’s teaching it and should be the case on the part of the students, but more on that later – and that there’s an immense of amount of work that needs to get done after class. This is just the same as a meeting. If you walked into a meeting not knowing anything about the meeting, not having prepped figures, or updates, or background on a company or product or project that the meeting is about, you would be fired. If you left the meeting and went home, and did nothing else until the next meeting, you would be fired. Working as an instructor is not a cushy job because when you’re in the classroom it is not the only time you’re working; similarly, working in any another job is not cushy, because you’re also working when you’re not in meetings.

    In terms of student prep, what your kids are probably not telling you, Gene, is that they are supposed to be reading, researching, writing papers, working on projects, doing assignments, etc. for a minimum of 8-10 hours, per credit hour. That means for a 3-credit course, they should be spending a minimum of 24 hours per week outside of class. Are they? No, they are probably spending their time texting you complaining that they are not learning anything. The thing is, to learn something, the student needs to make an effort. In this era of constant connection with parents, students are doing less and less for themselves and spending more of their time reporting to their parents. There are hard numbers that show this; look it up.

    There’s so much more to say about this article – a point by point response is necessary and I hope the magazine publishes one (I’d be happy to do it) – but mostly I’m deeply saddened that something that is so poorly thought out, so little researched and so obviously the knee-jerk reaction of a wealthy parent who wants their power as a “consumer” recognized in a very particular set of ways, makes the cover of Philly Mag. Philadelphia is full of such interesting thoughtful dialogue; this is not one of those pieces.

  • This guy doesn’t get it. It was irresponsible to publish his uninformed ranting as an article.

  • Jane Said

    This article is generally the exact opposite of right. In fact, in terms of facts, it’s often completely off base.
    1. Class time is a tiny proportion of the work, for both students and professors–students should put in 3 hours of work for every hour in the classroom, while professors prepping new courses often spend a minimum of 10 hours preparing for every hour in the classroom.
    2. Students are supposed to use that ‘off time’ in the summer to develop the very traits that he extols in point three; professors use it for research, which advances knowledge and keeps students from learning about the same things in 2014 that they’d learn about in 1974.
    3. If parents want access to their records, take it up with FERPA.
    4. Financial aid offices have grown considerably over the last two decades; that you’re “too busy” to find out what a college offers does not mean that financial aid should hire more people (which would make college more expensive).
    5. Study after study has shown that the online education he’s talking about actually impedes learning. There’s no substitute for intensive classroom teaching, if you want your kids actually to learn something.
    6. For-profit colleges have typically been a joke. They actually cut corners on education while increasing the luxury experience for students in order to pull in those who don’t need financial aid. Certain things shouldn’t be privatized (see also: prisons, hospitals).

    I could go on, but in sum: if you’re going to write an article about something, you should know what in the world you’re writing about.

    • James J

      The author has three children beginning their Sophomore year. He has one year of “college experience.” In today’s world, that should qualify him as an expert. [sarcasm intended]

  • TrendyClouds

    The author has pointed out some real disconnects between universities/colleges and
    the real world from parents, students, and employers perspective. From the few comments, it seems the universities/colleges are content, however parents, students, employers are frustrated. Time and money is heavily invested (by parents or students), however not fully harvested as expected. Employers can’t find the right people that can jump start without further training; students can’t find suitable job without taking further professional courses. Is this a system problem? The same education system is more than hundreds of years old … anything can be done?

  • AB

    Here’s an idea – because you felt so compelled to write a magazine article about your dissatisfaction with the college system, why don’t you make your kids to pay their own tuition? If your kids became responsible for their own debts, perhaps you wouldn’t feel obligated to partake in another b*tch fest about the topic!

  • MeganW

    Profit sharing is a terrible idea. An example of it not working in the students’ favor is the Art Institutes. What should be happening is the government has a right to freeze federal aid to the school if a large percentage stops paying their federal loans.

  • Temple student

    “My experience with the financial aid programs at my kids’ schools has been disappointing and frustrating. These offices are understaffed and overwhelmed. And on top of that, most parents (like me) are too busy and too ignorant of all the choices and nuances to really take full advantage of what’s available.” As a college student paying my own way, I sure wish I had the luxury of shelling out $30,000 because I’m “too ignorant” to investigate options for aid. What 21-year old has $30,000 in the bank to cover tuition, or the credit history to qualify for a private loan of this magnitude? The reality is that if I have to pay more than $2,000 each year for tuition, after exhausting all resources–Pell Grants, SEOG Grants, PHEAA Grants, academic scholarships, Federal Stafford loans, Federal Perkins loans–I wouldn’t be able to go to college. How blissful it would be to throw up my hands in the air to say “I am simply too busy with school and work to investigate financial aid, so I’ll just have to pay out of pocket.” I envy students (or more likely, parents) who have a pocket to empty. Marks pays $110,000 a year toward his kids tuition, which is the amount my mom will earn from her job over the course of a decade. FAFSA says that my mother can contribute $800 toward my tuition per year, but that ain’t happening. How does someone who makes $11,000 a year and is the head-of-household have $800 in discretionary income? I have no choice but to pick up the tab for my tuition. While I’ve been working since I was a young teenager, making $5.25 an hour at an under-the-table gig doesn’t provide much in the way of savings. You can imagine how thrilled I am as an adult that now makes $8 an hour. My goal is to eventually attain the financial stability to eat lunch on a daily basis. The best line in the article? “The reality is they’re just kids. And they’re not paying.” That’s cute. Maybe I should ask my financial aid office if they could let me off the hook since I am a “kid” (who just happens to have the added burden of adult bills).

  • PD

    Where as I think the author of this article raises some interesting and valid points, there is a lot inaccurate information reported. A good journalist does his research, Whatever happened to journalistic integrity? If the author majored in journalism I suggest that he go back and ask his university and ask for a refund – he should have failed Journalism 101.

    I can’t believe the editors at PM allowed this article to run. If their goal has to get a reaction from readers – well done. They have entered the world of tabloid reporting.

    If their goal is to be perceived as a reputable publication that provides accurate information for their readers then they failed dismally.
    Don’t you think it would have been a good idea to actually to talk to some people in higher ed to get their perspective?

    And as for paying $110,000 for your childrens’ education -give yourself a pat on the back. Nice job!

    No one is forcing you to pay this. That is a decision you have made. Your kids are adults. They are probably over 18 years of age. Legally they able to vote, fight and die for their country. By all means help them out but no one says you have to continue to financially support them 100%.

  • Amanda

    “Cushy”? You can’t get much more cushy than a “journalist” (I apply that term very loosely) for Philly Mag. Obviously couldn’t handle the workload at a serious publication or just wasn’t good enough. This is a poorly written article. What a shame.

  • Jack Bellis

    Although the headline had me optimistic that I would read
    critical examinations of the root problem—the 50-year-long absence of colleges
    needing to have any cost control—the article content was deflating. So, I guess
    it was another victory for headline-writing (thus the plight of much media).
    Sadly, Mr. Marks quickly veered off the road, into tiresome generational
    blaming, with few real answers to the headline question.

    For instance, tenure might be ugly and a contributing factor but it’s a
    tangent. The problem of college price is identical to healthcare; these are the
    two main aspects of our economy that are labor-intensive yet have been immune
    to 1) technology and 2) off-shoring to lower priced labor. And for 50 years,
    both systems have grown to be exactly what would be expected of them in a
    rich-fat-and-happy US, where no cost controls were even needed during the
    biggest expansion of wealth in all of history (1950-2000). So, like a black
    hole of intense gravitational pull, they are now where all the US money is
    sucked into… all the consumers’(!) money, that is. (Money from those who have
    enough to pay for college and–then-some? It goes to the financial world, money
    begetting money, like any college-educated person would do.)

    Solutions? Unlike healthcare, where pricing transparency is the absolute,
    unarguable starting point (please tell your friends), that’s irrelevant in
    single-bundled college education. In fact, the bundling is the start of the
    problem. The only way to start to get cost control moving in higher ed is to
    separate instruction from student accreditation! Think about it. Students would
    go to one organization to learn; and another organization to certify what
    they’ve learned. The old system, where the fox ran the henhouse was good for a
    few hundred years, but…

    But what? Did college change? Did the world change? Is there no moderation in
    the pricing? Don’t other countries have better systems, or less runaway costs?
    Maybe they do, but we’re not other countries. We have the “fierce engine of the
    American economy,” into which graduates are pumped as if from a firehose of
    liquid humanity. They end up flat on their faces in a business world in which,
    for instance, the president of a Philadelphia university takes home 50 peoples’
    worth of income every year. And no regulation is on the verge of changing that.
    The answer is that the world has changed, but college has not had the slightest
    reason to; it has been immune to cost control for 50 years, and the price has
    simply gone where we have taken it: virtually all private colleges have an
    identical price, $60k per year, which is probably the theoretical max that the
    richest among us will pay before they themselves would revolt. Our only hope is
    to separate training from testing. The testing side will be newer and
    inherently driven by efficiencies; the instructional side will then have to
    compete genuinely. And prices will align with the value of the instruction, not
    the price we pay the head football coach.

  • Anonymous

    I would like to comment about this article and Tom McGrath’s editorial. College is not for everyone and there are those that do succeed without it. However, I do think that employers need to rethink their hiring practices in the future if more young adults are opting to get their education elsewhere. Right now, applications are done on line, resumes are sent on line and if the resume does not have the parameter the computer is programed to look for, like a BS or BA degree the resume is automatically disqualified. Companies do not bring people in for interviews unless all the boxes are checked on their software programs. This disqualifies talented young people and experienced workers who have decided to take a different route to their education.

  • College Professor

    As a non-tenured college professor, I found Mr. Marks’ article filled with inaccuracies and half measures. As a former public school teacher, I found his article another example of how people outside of education BLAME those who work tirelessly in education for the flaws of the system and mistakenly think they can “show us the way” with their irrelevant anecdotes from business. How sad that something so poorly written and based on such thin evidence could get published! In the world of academia, this article would never have passed the rigorous peer-review process for publication.

    Surely the cost of tuition is ridiculous; I continue to make my own student loan payments each month, something it seems Mr. Marks’ children will never have the pleasure of doing – how lucky are they! However, the “solutions” the author offers are just as ridiculous as the rising cost of tuition. Having professors work year round would mean we would need to be paid year round, and wouldn’t that cause yet another spike in tuition costs? Further, not only do I teach my students content, but I find myself teaching them how to write (Mr. Marks – I can help you with this, also), how to communicate professionally, how to use technology to their advantage and not just for social media, and how to contribute to a sense of collegial well-being. I also mentor former students long after they graduate and obtain employment. This is something that I find very rewarding, albeit time consuming and having nothing to do with my university’s impending tenure decision for my career. It is clear to me that he has never worked for a university system, tried teaching this next generation of 20-somethings (it’s much, much, much harder and time consuming than he makes it seem), or experienced the 60+ work week that professors experience for much less money than I surmise Mr. Marks brings home.

    In addition, colleges DO run year round. We offer classes throughout the summer for students who can afford to take them. However, most students need the summers to work and make money to help defray the costs of attending college. Wow, this author really did not do his research. Maybe he should start by encouraging his own children to take advantage of summer classes. They can even take summer classes online, sign up for MOOCs – massive open online course (another of the author’s solutions that are actually already in place), or they can take their summer courses at a nearby school and have the credits transferred. Yes, a 3-year bachelor’s degree is possible if you have the privilege of never having to work and save money.

    What a lot of my students have done is gone to a community college for two years and then transferred to a more affordable state institution to finish their degree. I wonder if Mr. Marks in his infinite wisdom of how to “fix college” ever encouraged his own children to do that?

    If I were grading this essay (and yes, Mr. Marks, I use online platforms to grade in case you were wondering how else you could enlighten me), let’s just say it would not be used as an exemplar for persuasive writing or whatever this author thought he was doing. I do agree with the author on one point: in his opening paragraph Mr. Marks made reference to his thinking he would be a good U.S. Congressman. After reading his one-sided article fraught with ideas that only serve to prove how out of touch he is, I agree that he would make an excellent member of Congress.

    • Amanda Rose

      You hit the proverbial nail on the head!! As you pointed out, and as I questioned as well, why didn’t his children attend community college for a couple of years to help defray their college expenses? I am also disappointed that Philadelphia Magazine decided to print this ridiculous article. Instead of it being an insightful article that brought on a great discussion by its readers, it provoked a large amount of angry responses due to the writer’s sense of enlightenment and his lack of research. How can an article be printed that questions the college system without the simple understanding of the well-known federal law FERPA? If you’re going to write an article that criticizes the college system, you might want to do a little research beforehand! It was irresponsible of Philadelphia Magazine to print this nonsense.

  • Ross Woods

    Probably a good statement of where some things in Higher Education have to go, and anyone starting a new university would probably follow the guidelines in this article. For example, if you employ someone to teach, they should be good at it.

    Some things have already started going that way. (I thought that tenure was already going the way of the dinosaur anyway.) Lectures are increasingly an online publication produced by external personnel (like books have been for centuries) rather than a face-to-face service.

    In some of the major western countries, higher education systems are increasing having affordability problems, whether the government or the private sector pays for it. The problem is the model itself, so changes will need to be fundamental rather than cosmetic.

    It is very easy to make overgeneralizations either in support of or in attack on anything, so lots of the debate below just doesn’t stand up. For example, some college staff work very hard and are excellent teachers. And some aren’t. Some have other major responsibilities (admin, writing projects, etc.) And some don’t.

  • JakeK

    It is well known that smart management makes money (think, Apple Computers) while incompetent management loses money (think, Blackberry). Here are some of the management ideas Mr. Rand proposes:

    (1) Remove economic incentives for employees (e.g., vacation time, job security) because somehow smart people like this and will flock to such disincentives.

    (2) Hire employees that follow orders and can do exactly what Mr. Rand wants, instead of, say, having independent judgment to know why Blackberry might have failed keep up.

    (3) Assume that his management practices will transfer to any other operation, like
    a university, because “everything should be run like a business”. It’s strange, how this wisdom doesn’t seem to keep businesses from constantly failing.

    (4) Assume that all “customers” are the same. By Mr. Rand’s reckoning, all college
    students have their tuition paid for by their parents.

    In the meanwhile, for his own finances he seems to have failed to prepare for known
    fixed future costs (e.g., three children in college simultaneously) and made
    unwise economic choices (e.g., choosing colleges that sum to $110,000 per year
    instead of inexpensive state universities, like Temple, where the tuition would sum to
    about $42,000 per year).

    Lastly, instead of letting the market determine the prices, he wants those prices to come down by his fiat.

    I wish Mr. Rand were the CEO of a publicly traded company. I would love to short sell that stock.

    • JakeK


      Mr. Marks–that is. Must have been a Freudian slip.

      I should also add that there is a school that does most of the things Mr. Marks wants–it is called University of Phoenix. But, somehow Mr. Marks seems to want to choose another better product but at the price he wants.

  • Christina P

    What a frustrating article. Please do better Philly Mag of interviewing people who are truly bearing the brunt of student debt. As a millennial in the field of education, I had no option but to pursue higher education to increase my salary enough to pay back of fraction of my loans. Now, with a masters degree plus 30 credits, I personally owe $110,000. His children are lucky they have a parent with the financial means to pay $110,000 per year for their education. They are unencumbered with the hardships that carrying 6-figure debts brings a recent college grad. Here is a suggestion Gene – send your children to state schools or have them use their fancy educations to figure out the FAFSA system.