College costs cannot rise faster than income forever—we cannot afford it. Necessity is the mother of invention. Like it or not, American higher education is in for big change in the next generation. Richard Vedder, professor of economics, Ohio University, 2011
[T]o balance our budget in a way that protects our scholarships and academic programs, I am calling on all our colleges and universities to continue to look for more ways to cut overhead and administrative costs and run smarter, more efficient operations. While leaner, more efficient operations are essential, higher education must continue to adapt for the modern economy. Public colleges and universities must change their business models. Jay Nixon, governor of Missouri, State of the State Address, January 17, 2012
Some Ohio elected officials say state colleges and universities have brought the debt problem upon themselves. They suggest, for example, that state schools are bloated, antiquated, and don’t do a good enough job graduating students or training them for the workforce. Some complain about the salaries of football coaches and college presidents, like [Gordon] Gee, who has a compensation package of $2 million a year as president of Ohio State. Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehrer, The New York Times, May 12, 2012
The cost of higher education has long been the subject of public debate, but the recent outcry over soaring tuition rates—often coupled with politicians’ claims that public higher education is straining state budgets—has reached almost a fever pitch. Students are graduating with a significant amount of student loan debt. Four-year graduation rates at many institutions are undesirably low. And the placement rates of graduates in careers directly related to their degrees have been hampered by a sluggish economy.
Hypotheses about why college costs so much seem as numerous as the critics themselves. The salaries of administrators are often cited as a leading cause. So is the sheer cost of maintaining the physical plant and equipment found on most modern campuses. Additional technology costs—such as computers, research equipment, and state-of-the-art classrooms, which are often deemed essential to “maximize student engagement”—simply were not factors in higher education a generation or two ago (the time when many governors and legislators went to school). The current generation of college students also expects access to amenities such as single rooms and kitchenettes in residence halls, state-of-the-art health facilities, and an expanded array of dining options. Even as these expectations increase, however, state governments have become more and more unwilling to fund higher education because they do not regard it as a public good that’s desirable in and of itself. Politicians often observe that public budgets can no longer afford funding education and research that aren’t truly an economic investment. In the words of Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, “We’re also saying that it’s not good enough to do research. If you don’t commercialize and create jobs, what’s the point? … [The goals of research in higher education should be:] Commercialize. Create jobs. Spin off companies.”
The solution that’s often proposed to these problems is to “stop trying to be all things to all people.” This comment is usually followed by an observation along the lines of, “Why does this state need four different law schools/ceramics programs/theater departments/creative writing workshops anyway?” (The program that’s mentioned is whichever one the speaker regards as insignificant.) The goal that was common only a few decades ago—“a college within driving distance of every student”—has been amended by a new reality: “But it may not have the program or courses you want.” To be sure, there’s a great deal of unwarranted duplication in many state university systems, much of it caused by mission creep: the tendency of every institution to want to become something it’s not. (See Buller, 2012.) But the real problem isn’t that colleges and universities are conducting esoteric research or adding unnecessary programs. It’s that many of them have bought into a concept we might call concierge education.
We find concierge education at work when institutions convey to potential and current students the impression that, no matter what it is they want to study, they’ll be able to do so at that school. Often this concept stems from pressures imposed by politicians and governing boards for ever-increasing rates of enrollment and retention. At its most innocuous, we see it when schools allow students to design their own majors. (“I know we don’t officially have a program in medical illustration, but why don’t you design your own major out of the art and biology courses we do offer?”) While many of these self-designed majors prove to be gateways to wonderful career opportunities, others put the student at a disadvantage when competing for jobs or admission to graduate school with others who come from larger, more comprehensive programs.
A second, slightly more harmful form of concierge education occurs when schools try to provide access to courses whenever and wherever students want them. (“I know how difficult it would be to complete our regular program with your work schedule and family obligations, so why don’t you consider taking courses in the evening, on weekends, or through our online college?”) At smaller colleges, the result of this attempt to be everything to everyone is that resources are spread ever thinner because a small staff is charged with providing an expanding menu of educational opportunities.
At its best, concierge education can be made an explicit part of a school’s mission and thereby given the attention and funding it deserves. At St. John’s University in New York, for example, a Campus Concierge Office that is staffed 76 hours a week directs students to the best offices to solve their problems, provides them with “the opportunity to purchase tickets for upcoming events, services, and activities,” and serves as a conduit of information about campus organizations and events. See www.stjohns.edu/campus/queens/studentlife/activities/concierge.
In a similar way, High Point University in North Carolina has designed a full range of concierge services, with its own website (www.highpoint.edu/concierge/) and five fully staffed concierge desks that provide such services as making reservations for airport shuttles; scheduling academic tutoring; arranging dry-cleaning service; and offering the use of complimentary iPads, Kindles, GPS units, and TI-89 calculators. What we can learn from High Point, however, is that genuine concierge education is expensive. Students are told up front that they have access to these services only because they pay a sizable comprehensive fee that includes tuition, fees, and room and board, “with no additional charge for fitness center, laundry facilities, kiosks, campus concierge, concerts, nationally known speakers, athletics, technology, tutoring, parking, and so much more” (www.highpoint.edu/studentaccounts/index.cfm?DeptID=162&PageID=4165). Moreover, students who wish to reside in more luxurious quarters, such as those where they’d have a single room with a private bathroom, must pay an additional premium over and above the comprehensive fee.
One factor in the rising cost of higher education—certainly not the only factor but still one of them—is that many academic leaders try to provide a stripped-down form of the High Point experience without charging an additional fee. The result is that concierge approaches have become the “new normal,” and they bring with them pressure for an increase in tuition and fees. That tendency can prove disastrous. Academic leaders need to understand that the marketplace for higher education is as varied as any other marketplace. Just as in transportation our options range from public buses to Maseratis and in restaurants we can choose from the Extra Value Menu at McDonald’s or the prix fixe menu at Masa, so should the level of luxury in postsecondary education run a wide gamut. As colleges and universities continue to offer students every program through every platform at every location, they position themselves at the costlier end of this market, pricing themselves out of reach for increasing numbers of students. Information provided to The Chronicle of Higher Education by the College Board suggests that the true cost of higher education (including such factors as books, transportation, room and board, and other expenses) is now more than $21,000 a year at public institutions and twice that at private ones. (See Finance, 2012). It’s no wonder why so many students are either opting for a community college education (where total costs still average more than $15,000 a year for a residential student) or taking on massive student loan debt. Seeking more efficient operation may mean abandoning the concierge approach for many institutions, offering only select programs in select formats and partnering with other schools in order to provide a broader range of options. No one, of course, wants to be the first to admit that they can’t afford to offer a prestigious program to the students who want it, but the new fiscal realities suggest that this type of restructuring will increasingly become inevitable.
Buller, J.L. (October 2012). Shooting ourselves in the foot. Academic Leader. 28.10, 2-3.
Finance. (August 31, 2012). The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59.1, 38.
Martin, A., & Lehrer, A.W. (May 12, 2012). A generation hobbled by the soaring cost of college. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/business/student-loans-weighing-down-a-generation-with-heavy-debt.html?pagewanted=all.
Nixon, J. (January 17, 2012). Missouri State of the State Address. Retrieved from http://governor.mo.gov/newsroom/2012/Gov_Nixon_delivers_2012_State_of_the_State_address.
Vedder, R. (December 2, 2011). Why does college cost so much? CNNOpinion. Retrieved from www.cnn.com/2011/12/02/opinion/vedder-college-costs/index.html.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLAS, a firm providing academic leadership training and assessment worldwide. His latest book, Best Practices in Faculty Evaluation: A Practical Guide for Academic Leaders, is available from Jossey-Bass.