Is Higher Education Pricing Itself Out of its Own Market?

Is Higher Education Pricing Itself Out of its Own Market?

Jeff Selingo, editor-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education, has just come out with a new book, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. In a recent NPR interview, he discussed the rising costs entailed in enticing students; gourmet dining halls, luxury dorms with en-suite kitchens, and leisure-time attractions like climbing walls—everything short of a go-kart track and butler service.

Jeff Selingo's new book raises questions about the cost of higher education.

Jeff Selingo’s new book raises questions about the cost of higher education.

But shouldn’t the actual education be driving the bulk of a college’s price tag? Selingo contends that by bending over backwards to offer these kinds of attractions, schools have compromised their economic future:

“…now suddenly those bills are coming due, and the problem is that the students are either not there or they’re unwilling to pay the money to fund those things.”

He notes that, “right now we measure learning by time spent in a seat,” and goes on to predict some profound changes in the future of education, from core practices to revised expectations:

“What will be different, however, is that you’re going to have many more players in the system. [For example] if you decide to take a MOOC [Massive Online Open Course] … and you want to transfer credit … MOOCs might provide a piece of a person’s education.

…What I think the disruption will be is that some students could finish in 2 1/2 years. There’s nothing really magic about 120 credits in four years. It’s just tradition.”

It’s a fascinating—and unsettling—perspective on the future of higher education, and it raises the question: Is it an all-or-nothing equation? Are we facing a polarized spectrum, with luxury-centric institutions on one end and a scattered, disparate mass of hermetic online learners on the other—or is there a middle ground that can incorporate the strengths of each side?

Of course, it’s easy to wish for the best of both worlds, but it doesn’t seem wildly optimistic to envision a future of higher education that attracts students without coddling or bribing them with distractions, and manages to be progressive in incorporating technological and practical change without undermining fundamental qualitative expectations.

Do you see higher ed heading more toward one of these ends of the spectrum? Or do you expect it to feature aspects of both? If so, what does your middle ground include—what do you think the future of higher education will look like?

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  1. Erin,

    Thanks for the thought provoking post. The “Me” Millennium controlled by quickly adapting technologies has resulted in colleges and universities to turn towards lower cost online programs as alternative to the traditional brick and mortar setting. Coming from a less fortunate (financially) background, having the opportunity to attend Tufts University was a dream come true. Unfortunately, I was not as educated on the actual costs of earning an education from such an expensive institution. 4 years and $90K later, I am proud of my degree but I will spend the next 20 years paying for it. I understand my situation is the “norm” but does it have to be? I read a very interesting article about how most colleges and universities only utilize 10% of their massive endowments to help students cover the cost of tuition. The other 90% goes towards athletic programs, buildings, faculty pay raises, etc. The main argument of the article was to push a new tax bill that would tax university endowments to a level that would pressure administrators into utilizing their endowments to cover tuition to avoid the high tax. I like this idea because it could lead to 50% or more reduction in tuition costs. Just some food for thought.

  2. Joe,
    Thanks for your thoughts. Speaking from the perspective of a Millennial, your observations are particularly relevant, especially because, as you say, you’ve grown up at the mercy (but sometimes in the driver’s seat) of rapidly evolving technologies. Those of us who remember life before the Internet (I’m not a grandma, but I did grow up watching The Cosby Show as a kid) are still trying to integrate our perspectives on engaging with the world in online and on-site contexts; you and your generation have inherited all the tools, but without an instruction manual.

    So it becomes a grass-is-greener situation; we look to you as you start to pick up the reins—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes with purpose—and watch your best practices in integrating your virtual and real-world presences (and occasionally ask you to show us how to update our iPhones and tell us what LOLcatz are). And you, in turn, rely on us—sometimes implicitly, sometimes overtly—to embody a model for navigating adult life in the midst of the technological, economic and social advances and pitfalls that we’ve strewn in your path. It’s a fascinating moment in history, and it’s inquisitive, motivated people like you who are going to shepherd it forward.

    I’d be interested to read the story you mentioned, if you’d like to post a link here. I think you’re right about money being a factor, both at the institutional end of the spectrum and the “customer” end (i.e., the student). Online education, like the Internet as a whole, represents a democratization of information and a great opportunity for access to education. As we move toward standardizing its implementation, tuition and taxes will surely play a crucial role.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

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