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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