The Agenda

Vance Fried Reboots Higher Education

Rick Hess summarizes “Opportunities for Efficiency and Innovation: A Primer on How to Cut College Costs,” a new report by Vance Fried of Oklahoma State University:


Fried starts with a simple but provocative thought-experiment: What would it cost to educate undergraduates at a hypothetical college built from scratch, if the college focused on student learning and nothing else? Fried proceeds to identify opportunities for substantial cost savings. He argues that the real levers for increasing efficiency are not the conspicuous, big-ticket items, like football stadiums and plush dorms, but more mundane expenditures that soak up scarce funds. Fried flags five promising cost-cutting strategies: eliminate or separately fund research and public service, optimize class size, eliminate or consolidate low enrollment programs, eliminate administrator bloat, and downsize student life programs.

Offering up alternative practices on each score, Fried is able to sketch a greenfield, high-quality college with a per pupil annual cost of $6,700–compared to $25,900 for a public research institution or $51,500 for a private research institution. When compared to similarly-sized traditional research institutions, the per pupil cost is one-fifth that of privates and just over one-third that of publics. Fried even takes on community colleges, suggesting that they are still 20 percent more expensive per pupil than Fried’s four-year construct. Fried takes on online learning, too, suggesting that the projected savings only materialize when the alternative is small classes, while larger classes in traditional institutions price out similarly to online alternatives. [Emphasis added]

The paper itself is fascinating:

I didn’t cut any corners in designing CELS.  A laptop is included in tuition, there is a residential college system like Harvard and Yale, faculty are high quality, and the football stadium has a Jumbotron.  However, I also didn’t waste any money.  I followed a simple design premise: maximize value to the student. Determine what package of benefits (primarily learning) and price is attractive to them. If an activity has a high cost but provides a substantial benefit, then do it; but do it as efficiently as possible. If an activity adds significant cost but only minor benefits, don‟t do it. In sum, my guiding design principle for CELS was never spend money unless the resulting additional student benefit is clearly greater than the additional cost.

Eliminating the research function saves a considerable amount of money, and it will no doubt cause discomfort:

Producing research is a costly undertaking. From society’s viewpoint, the costs of university research may be justified because it provides a public good, generating new innovation and knowledge in fields like medicine, engineering, and the hard sciences. However, these costs do not do much for educating most students. There may be benefits to the relatively few students in academic, research-oriented graduate programs, but most undergraduates or professional school students fail to ever benefit from these substantial research investments. 

For these reasons, research  should be largely eliminated at public regional colleges and most private bachelor’s colleges, whose core business is to educate undergraduates.  In these colleges, faculty research activity should range from nonexistent to modest. On the other hand, public and private research universities do have a major research mission.  Here,  care must be taken to insure that research does not reduce the quality of undergraduate education and that it is not financially subsidized by money meant to be going to education.  Research is a legitimate, major E&G cost, but this cost should not be passed on to students in the form of higher tuition.

On reflection, it’s not crazy to separate a major research mission from a more focused mission of offering high-quality undergraduate instruction. Yet the two are tightly linked in the public imagination and by convention, and this may well enhance the legitimacy of public funding for research. It seems entirely plausible that the public would grow more resistant to funding research, particularly in the humanities, if it were separated from teaching in this fashion, increasing reliance on civil society resources.


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