Informations Systems Consultant

My recent post on why the campus experience still matters in an age of digital learning prompted an outpouring of comments. One consistent theme was that the face-to-face experience might be superior, but it is increasingly out of financial reach for a growing segment of students and their families.

No doubt about that.

We all know college costs continue to rise at unsustainable rates. The average tuition bill now eats up nearly 40% of the median family income in the United States, up from about 23% in the early part of last decade. Of course, median income has fallen in that same period, so don’t blame all the problems just on rising tuition prices.

At the rate we’re going, the campus experience that so many people fondly recalled in their comments will become an event reserved just for the wealthy and well-off. To keep that campus experience exactly the same and reduce costs will require substantial changes to the financial model of higher education that are unlikely to happen anytime soon.

But if we are willing to rethink our ideal of the residential college experience a bit—that is, four years, full-time on the same campus—we might be able to lower the price for some students:

Focus on the final two years as a resident.

At many large public universities, first-year students are stuffed by the hundreds into lecture halls for their introductory courses. Their interaction with faculty is often with a graduate teaching assistant. It’s a recipe for dropping out, and many students do. Increasingly, two-year colleges are becoming a popular pathway to a university for students, unsure of what they want to do and looking for ways to save on the tuition bill (about $5,000 less, on average, each year). In many states, public universities provide automatic admission from a select group of community colleges, and the upper-level courses at universities are typically much better (and smaller) than those entry-level classes.

Integrate real work into the curriculum.

About 17% of full-time undergraduates who go right from high school into college work more 20 to 34 hours a week to help pay for college tuition. Some of them work jobs that are related to their majors, but most are working random jobs to pay the bills. At the same time, employers are complaining that college graduates are not ready for the working world. By rethinking the academic calendar and integrating real-world work into the curriculum (like Drexel and Northeastern universities already do), students can help defray the cost of their education and gain work experience at the same time.

Return to the dorms of a generation ago.

Nearly every college has substantially upgraded student housing in the past decade, and with those changes have come substantially higher prices for students. Some of the changes have benefited students academically, such as creating learning communities where students live with classmates of similar majors and interests. But most of the changes—single rooms, private bathrooms, and over all luxury—have come at a high cost to students. My argument is that if Harvard’s dorms looked like jail cells, we’d still see a line of students waiting to get in. Colleges should create more low-cost, basic living options for students.

Spend less time on campus.

Students can still benefit from the campus experience without necessarily spending 30-plus weeks a year there. If students are working in apprenticeships while attending school and taking advantage of courses from other providers (either face-to-face or online), they don’t need to spend as much time on campus. Colleges could offer flexible paths that give students low-residency options. Such models already exist on som campuses, including Goddard College in Vermont.


By Jeffrey Selingo an editor at large at The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the forthcoming book, College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, scheduled for release on May 7.


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