As Richard Vedder explains, it is very easy to imagine a high-quality undergraduate education at a cumulative four-year tuition of $10,000, a proposal advanced by Texas Gov. Rick Perry — but first we need to take two politically difficult but not impossible steps:
First, state governments would have to maintain subsidies that typically average over $5,000 a student. Second, universities would need to reallocate resources and reorder priorities. Given the intransigence and power of existing colleges, the solution may be to move to create new institutions blending electronic and traditional teaching approaches to offer a high-quality affordable degree.
I have examined data on faculty activities and compensation in Governor Perry’s own state, most intensively at the University of Texas but also at his alma mater, Texas A&M. My sense is that at U.T. if most of the faculty taught even half as much as those shouldering most of the teaching burden and the savings from needing fewer faculty (and slashing the attached administrative costs) were solely devoted to tuition reduction, tuition could be roughly cut in half — most of the way to meeting Perry’s goal.
Wouldn’t this greatly reduce productive research activity? I don’t think so. The top 2 percent or so of faculty receiving almost all the federal research grants could be exempt from higher teaching loads. I envision most U.T. faculty would teach six hours a week, averaging perhaps 150 students per year. That would involve only 200 hours annually in the classroom and allow plenty of time for research (I did it for 36 years). This could be replicated in other states. The problem is not only misallocating faculty by having them do too much trivial research, but also underutilizing their talents.
One assumes that less-productive faculty members would resist these reforms. But it is important to remember that the primary goal of public higher education should be to broaden access to a high-quality undergraduate education.
Anthony Carnevale anticipates and addresses criticisms of the $10K BA:
Inevitably, Governor Perry will be accused of “tracking” — putting affluent students on a track for America’s elite schools, and poorer students on a track for his less desirable “discount” institutions. In fairness, though, the nation already has such a system. Today, America’s selective four-year colleges educate half the students, who are increasingly affluent and white; two-year colleges and the least-selective four-year schools educate the less fortunate, other half — who are increasingly working class, Hispanic and African American. Elite four-year colleges enroll only 4 percent of students from low-income families, 6 percent of Hispanics, and 5 percent of African Americans.
There’s no doubt that Governor Perry’s plan could help perpetuate this system, which is anything but perfect. But, we don’t want the perfect to crowd out the good. In this struggling economy, there is still merit to any notion of widening access to college and middle class jobs.
Carnevale suggests an even more ambitious strategy for public higher education:
The real flaw in Governor Perry’s plan is that it does not go quite far enough. We would argue that his focus should not be solely on offering affordable college degrees, but also on linking these degrees to real jobs.
If Governor Perry’s plan can do that — educate and place, say, a nurse, a teacher or an accountant for $10,000 — then more power to him.
One wonders if some kind of publicly-sponsored matching program, modeled on the college admission approach pioneered by ConnectEDU, might help realize Carnevale’s goal. Kevin Carey describes the technology as follows:
A few days after returning from the college fair, Jameel logged on to a new Web site that is the result of a contract between the Miami-Dade County school system and a Boston-based company called ConnectEDU. The site offered Jameel loads of information about different colleges and universities, along with strategies for filling out college applications and getting scholarships and financial aid. It was also a vessel for information about Jameel himself—his grades, courses, and activities, along with short animated quizzes designed to identify his strengths and goals. There were checklists and schedules and friendly reminders, all tailored to the personal aspirations the site had gleaned from Jameel, all focused on identifying the colleges that might meet them.
This is the future of college admissions. The market for matching colleges and students is about to undergo a wholesale transformation to electronic form. When the time comes for Jameel to apply to colleges, ConnectEDU will take all of the information it has gathered and use sophisticated algorithms to find the best colleges likely to accept him—to find a match for Jameel in the same way that Amazon uses millions of sales records to advise customers about what books they might like to buy and Match.com helps the lovelorn find a compatible date. At the same time, on the other side of the looking glass, college admissions officers will be peering into ConnectEDU’s trove of data to search for the right mix of students.
Employers have needs very different from college admissions officers, but technologies like this have long been used by workers at the upper end of the labor market. Private firms like LinkedIn and TheLadders have made impressive strides. Yet they’re not reaching the long-term unemployed, who might need a different kind of service.