Monday, March 18, 2013

Learning from low-cost private universities

Most people believe that private higher education is too expensive.  Their suggestions for reducing costs fall into two categories:

These answers, though,are speculative.  No private institution has significantly reduced the cost to students through these methods.  In fact, it is from the most expensive and prestigious institutions that low-cost online courses are flowing.  Those schools seem unlikely to reduce tuition in the near future.

These speculative recommendations ignore the fact that there are many low-cost private non-profit institutions of higher education in the United States. The Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center generates lists of the private institutions with the lowest tuition and the lowest net costs.  What do these schools share?
  1.  Most have never had expensive administrators or luxurious campuses. 
  2.  Few offer online courses.
  3.  They have a clear curricular focus--usually religious--and generally offer a limited set of degrees.
  4. They often are subsidized by religious bodies or in the case of Berea College, a massive endowment.
  5. They are resolutely local (note, for example, the large number of low-cost private institutions in Puerto Rico).  Or put another way, few have national or global aspirations.
  6. Instead, their aspirations are to serve a single population, or a particular sponsoring body.
  7. Many are very small.
  8. They tend to have very low retention and graduation rates.
  9. Many are newly created.
A healthy discussion about the cost of private higher education would take these schools into consideration.  Their track records are not spotless--many teeter on the brink of collapse, others serve their students poorly by charging them so little.  

But four characteristics of theses schools are intriguing--curricular focus, local commitments, and recent origins.  All four flow against the trend towards offering more degrees, seeking global opportunities, and banking on the prestige that flows from venerability.  But education reformers who value private, non-profit higher education might bear these characteristics of real schools in mind as they try to craft the successful institutions of the future.

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