8 Ways to Lower the Cost of Higher Education That Every College Will Hate

Shall we state the obvious? Tenure is in the top three.

Today I dropped my daughter off at her freshman dorm. Last Saturday I did the same for my son. And a few weeks ago I watched my oldest (by eleven months … same school year) also go off to college for the first time (he went earlier for soccer preseason).

Yes, your math is right: three freshmen, three colleges. And three college tuitions. And yes, it’s incredibly expensive. But then again, there are no Gatorade bottles lying around, no smelly shoes to trip over, no bickering and no late-night episodes of Tosh.0 blaring from downstairs. And now I can come home to a house that looks exactly the same as I left it four hours before. Hmm … maybe all that tuition is worth it!

That said, it probably comes as no surprise that I was paying close attention to the president’s recent ideas for making college more affordable. Very close attention. And his ideas were good. But, with all due respect, they fall very short of the goal. College is super-expensive. I should know. I’m now at an expert at paying for it. And with that knowledge, I can also suggest a few better ideas for reducing the cost.

1. Work More. So, let’s start with the basics. How about everyone who works at a college actually works a full day? And how about if the students actually attend a full day of classes? Why does my son have one class Monday morning and then not another until Tuesday afternoon?  What are the professors doing all this time? Oh, that’s right: research. And why do professors get to take year long “sabbaticals” so they can do “research”? Have you seen this research? Oh, I’ll get to that. Let’s get our teachers actually teaching for 8 hours straight like high school teachers do. They’ve got plenty of grad students to help them with prep and grading the two tests they give a semester. More (gasp!) productivity from existing staff and students means more teaching can be done with fewer people. Lower payroll. Lower costs. Lower tuition. How about if we all pitch in and work a little harder … and that means you, Mr. Ancient Himalayan Language Professor.

2. End the Four-Year Degree. Why am I paying $50,000 a year so that my kids can leave for school at the end of August and return home the first week of May, and this after taking weeks off for Christmas and spring breaks too? Am I missing something? Can I get a job with four to five months vacation a year? Sign me up! How about prolonging the academic year so that more teaching can be done and a degree can be earned in three years, not four? Who said a college degree has to take four years anyway? British university degrees are only a three-year course, and they brought the world Monty Python, steak and kidney pie and Christian Bale (OK, he’s Welsh, but close enough). Saving a year of college would save me about $150K. Would my kids graduate any more stupider if there were no fourth year? Knowing my kids, that’s a physical impossibility.

3. Kill Tenure. Shall we state the obvious? Anyone know any other place of business that offers employment … for life? And what a deal! Once you get tenure you can pretty much do as you please. Your job is safe. And unless you’re caught in a four-way with two college freshman, Steven Hawking and a bottle of baby oil, there’s little recourse for a university to fire you. The tenure system adds permanent, unnecessary overhead to a cost structure that is already way too high. Here’s my suggestion: make the faculty work for their paycheck every day until they’ve (hopefully) saved enough to retire comfortably. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what all my employees are doing. That’s what … uh … everyone’s doing.

4. Get Rid of the Ice Cream Bar. Desserts in the college cafeteria cost way too much. And they’re unhealthy. Abolishing all sweet stuff on campus will not only save a college zillions in food costs, but also help keep off those added 10 to 15 pounds that seem to magically appear sometime around November.

5. Take a Hard Look at Your Research. Did you know that drunk kids have more unprotected sex? It’s true! Just ask Patricia Cavazos-Rehg of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Here’s another shocker: Gymnastics has the highest injury rate of all girls’ sports, according to a report from Ohio State University. And how about this fascinating information: Most horses love the smell of coriander, but they apparently do not like how it tastes. For this we (actually the poor taxpayers in the U.K.) get to thank Deborah Goodwin of the University of Southampton in England. Really? How many more ridiculous research projects are happening right now at universities around the world? And look, if we’re going to fund this kind of research, why not make it more relevant to us in the real world? How about studying what exactly was going through Miley Cyrus’s head when she performed at the VMAs earlier this week? Or a research project to determine why Ryan Howard can’t hit a simple ground ball to the left side of the infield when the entire opposing team is shifted to the other side of second base? This is information we really need!

6. Change Your Approach to Parents. For starters, colleges should cut costs by abolishing those agonizing parent weekends. I don’t know a single parent (or their child for that matter) who actually enjoys spending time awkwardly having dinner and attending university rah-rah events to justify their enormous tuitions. Also, when prospective parents are taking campus college tours, don’t herd us away to discuss “financial matters” while the kids get to gossip with the tour guide — make the kids suffer through the financial discussion too. In fact, address ALL financial information, like invoices and statements, to the kids. Why is it that colleges go to great lengths to emphasize our kids’ independence to live and study what they desire but have no problem sending the bill directly to mom and dad? Let the kids see what this is costing too. Give ‘em the guilt. Make them have to come to us every semester begging for a check. Make it required that they hand-deliver the check to the Bursar’s Office. It makes us feel needed and loved. Sure, it’s superficial. But we’ll take any quality time we can get.

7. Move 20 Percent of Your Classes Online. There’s thing called the Internet. And there are places called Kahn Academy. And, according to U.S. News and World Report, there are plenty of great colleges already offering online programs. But here’s the thing: Most colleges don’t require students to take online classes. Why not? Why shouldn’t my kids be made to take a minimum of 30 credits over four years online instead of going to class? Oh, that’s right … we have to keep our faculty busy! And online education is less costly and would help lower tuition. And we can’t lower tuition, can we? We need money for our sports programs and athletic facilities and our dorms with hot and cold running toilets and our state-of-the-art classroom buildings and our cafeterias serving fresh sushi and homemade bread.

8. Take a Vig on the Professor’s Book Earnings. Ever see the cost of college textbooks? We’re averaging about $500 per kid per semester. Wow! And that’s even if you buy them used or rent them on Amazon. And wait … so many of them are written by the professor teaching the course. Why … that’s a coincidence, isn’t it? Could it be that the professors are requiring us to buy their books so that they get … gasp … a royalty from the sale? Who knew that English professor out demonstrating with those Occupy protestors was actually one of the 1% too (or at least aspires to be)? How about if the universities get a little piece of that action … and pass the savings down to us, the soon-to-be poor parents paying for all this nonsense?

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  • NateFried

    Are you kidding man? Seriously??

    First off… research is essential to humanity, the economy, and our place as a world-leader. You may not like anthropology research, but you can’t possibly say this about medical or basic science research which makes up the brunt of research that comes out of a university. There are teaching faculty, and then there are research faculty who also teach. BOTH spend 40+ hours a week. You are deluded to think that just cause Johnny is in only one class on Monday, that his professor is playing golf the rest of the week! Plus… when researchers get a $1million grant, NIH or NSF pays an additional $500,000 to the university for overhead. So, in fact, having a successful research community MAKES the university money… not detracts from it to artificially inflate the cost of college! Furthermore, research faculty actually have to pay for their own salary out of the grants they pull in! If they also teach, the university covers maybe about 30% of their salary… everything else? The school gets for free.

    Second, three year degrees exist everywhere… if your kid is willing to work. Plenty of classes take place in the summer, and if they don’t, go to a different school. I knew plenty of kids who left in 3 years.If your kid isn’t willing to work hard to be finished in three years, that’s not really on the school.

    Thirdly, the tenure system needs to be re-worked, yes. But for the majority of faculty positions, their jobs are incredibly unstable. Much more unstable than even your job! Instead of surviving off of productivity that impresses your boss enough to keep you, with the economy determining whether or not your company stays afloat, and thus, your job, the academic system is different. In an academic system that involves research, you are constantly vetted for your papers and grants. This means that every single day you are working, you have to PROVE why you deserve to be there. Every single day, you are fighting against being let go. I’m not saying you don’t have to do that with writing, but I am saying that each day is another day that you have to prove your existence… whereas…with a lot of other jobs, you exist because they need your position filled. Think of tenure as a position you get in your 50s that says to you, “OK… you have done well. You can FINALLY relax.” Its a reward for having to not just do a good job every day, but to struggle to prove your worth at every point. Although there may be a few people who end up sleeping into their tenure, most become even more active in their department, teaching, and administration. Believe me, you don’t get to go on 9 months of vacation after you get tenure. It don’t work like that buddy.

    Fourth, Ice cream bar? If the student doesn’t want to pay for the meal plan, then they can opt out and shop on their own. This won’t do anything to change the cost of college.

    Fifth, you have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA the importance of basic research or how research works. First off… most all research is funded by government or private grants. The college doesn’t pay ANYTHING for any of this research. Second, take a little longer to read the discussions of the papers you pull. Often times, research is done that seems simplistic, but actually has a larger goal in mind. Reading beyond the title or abstract or the blog post that writes about it will give you a clearer understanding and appreciation of the project. An example of this is studying the pain mechanism of alcohol hangover headache. Studying this may seem stupid and not worth the effort, but by studying it, we are learning more about how alcohol affect specific parts of the brain, and in doing so, they are shedding light on how ethanol metabolism affects neuronal signaling, and thus, how it can impact the development of alcoholism. You see? A silly title makes for good blog entries against research funding, but if you read further, you’ll see the significance. Furthermore, weird research papers that come out that have no impact on science or the world… often times are not actually funded at all. They are simply interesting findings that came along while studying something else. These findings get written up and published. Other simple projects end up being conducted and published by young researchers (undergrads) looking for something simple to practice with in preparation for them to develop the needed skills for life as a researcher. All this being said… research is important… and nixing what appears to be silly papers won’t have ANY impact on the cost of college.

    Your sixth point? Yeah… I’m all about that. You are right.

    Seventh point? You might have a good conspiracy on your hands… but yeah… I would probably say they most likely don’t require online courses because they want to 1) give the student the traditional classroom environment and 2) increase funding for all the overhead of the college. Its not because they want to “justify” professor’s positions. Besides, online classes are still run by professors…. not robots. You still need hire someone to teach all those students. But there is often an online option for a number of classes. Just tell your kid to look harder.

    Eighth, do you really think this is also a conspiracy? In reality, one professor writes a book with a couple others about a discipline they are familiar with… then that book gets adopted into the field by ALL colleges. It’s not like professors from Drexel write all the books that Drexel students have to buy. In Neuroscience, there is one guy who wrote the best text book, and so its used across the world. Actually, when I took a chemistry class at Drexel, the book WAS written by our professor. What did she do then? She printed paperback books in-house so that students of her own university could purchase them for $50, instead of $250. I’m not saying text books are over-inflated in price (cause they totally are), but they are not that way because the professors are trying to “become the 1%”. And again, tell your kid to work harder. After my freshmen year, I photocopied all my text books from the library. Any smart kid knows how to study in the library and photocopy the few pages of a text book they need to keep up with the class. Furthermore, most tests come from the powerpoint lectures, and not from the books. Any kid who tells his parents that they need to spend $500 in text books a semester is either lying to their parents to use the money for something else, or isn’t looking harder for other options.

    In conclusion… you have ONE way, not eight, to lower the cost of college… enforce a rule that makes students learn about the financials of a college education before they matriculate.

  • Brandon

    I agree students should learn financials and that the books are way too expensive and something should be done about that. Everything else you wrote is crap and shows you don’t understand the mechanics of higher education or the importance of research. Research on topics that many considered “silly” led to many of the modern conveniences we now enjoy.

    • Brandon

      Also, I hope your children decide to become professors.

  • rk

    i love posts like this because when the opponent of my beliefs makes such bad, misinformed, and internally contradictory (be more like the brits! except when we don’t like the brits!) arguments, it convinces me I’m right.

    I’d say Mr. Marks should take a walk in faculty shoes (hint: many/most could make a lot more money doing something else), but we all saw how limited his empathy is when he pretended to be a black child.

  • bhannan

    Thank you Gene Marks. Your post opens up the can of worms called “exhorbitant college education in the US today.” With one just out and one currently in and us paying the full ride for both, much of what you write resonates loud and clearly with me. I am exactly in step with you on points 2 and 7. I don’t see any need for you to walk in a faculty member’s shoes as one commenter suggests. Your complaints are valid. You offer up suggestions to find a solution. Somewhere in all that you say, there is a way to cut costs. You’re a small business man, columnist and a dad, it’s not your job to do the hard work of figuring it all out. You put a spotlight on all the areas that seem to have swollen out of control since we ourselves attended college – like a boil that needs lancing. Your point is made very clear: the cost of college is beyond outlandish. Period. Your clarity comes from being close to the firing line – in this case that firing line is your sitting down and suddenly writing checks in the tens of thousands. There are excessive costs within every item on the list of expenses associated with attending college for four years. Surely something needs to be done to turn it around. Thanks for stirring up the discussion.

  • adjunct

    I don’t agree with your points. While they might appear to address the issues, from an insiders perspective, I believe there are different issues. Two aspects that this does not address are administrative costs and the plight of the adjunct instructor. Administration costs have increased significantly over the past 30 years. This refers to presidents, deans, coordinators, directors, etc. Another issue not mentioned are adjuncts. Currently, over 70% of classes are taught by adjuncts (most often in community colleges) but at all levels. The average yearly salary is $14,000 so this means instructors must work several jobs (and teach many more classes) to cover enormous student loan payments (I’m referring to myself now-despite receiving scholarships and assistantships). As a cheap labor source, we fund the tenure issue, which I agree is a problem. Furthermore, adjuncts don’t receive healthcare or any full-time benefits. Our classes are the first ones cancelled, and our situation is always temporary (semester to semester). I agree with the earlier commenters, but I believe these two issues are the biggest in higher education.