Scott Gibson - Controlling college costs

Scott Gibson

“We cannot price the middle class out of a college education,” President Obama said in his weekly radio message Aug. 24. His statement reflects the reality facing many students and families as college costs move to prohibitive levels.
The cost of college has been outstripping the overall rate of inflation for decades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, today’s cost of college tuition is 559 percent of what it was in 1985, while the core rate of inflation has roughly doubled in the same period. College inflation is nearly twice the rate of increase for medical care.

With increased cost has come increased debt, following the same dizzying slope. Student loan debt now outstrips the sum of all U.S. credit card or auto debt, estimated at $1 trillion. The average college student graduates $24,000 in debt.
In spite of the cost, students are flocking to colleges at increasing rates. As society becomes more technological, the best jobs and highest wages go to those with the greatest skills. The current unemployment rate for high school graduates is 8.3 percent, compared to 4.5 for those with a bachelor’s degree. Median wages for high school grads is only $652 per week, versus $1,066 with a bachelor’s. Clearly, college matters.

What explains the college tuition inflation trend? Not surprisingly, there are many factors.

One significant issue is productivity. William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, identifies what he calls the “cost disease” in education. Unlike some sectors, such as the auto industry, where robots and mechanization can supplant humans, education has difficulty increasing output with the same or fewer numbers of workers. You can inflate a class size only so far before students lose all contact with the teacher.

In addition, states are providing less money to public universities, driving up tuition rates. As less money is provided by taxpayers, students make up the difference.

According to the Delta Cost Project, another significant factor is the rising cost of administration, security, and student services. Universities are in a competition for the highest quality students, and those students are attracted to schools with enticing facilities, sports centers and ample services. In the academic world, this is known as the “amenities arms race.”

Dan Preston, vice president for enrollment management at Linfield, notes that employee health care and federal regulations drive up costs. Supplies are an often-overlooked source of inflation, says Preston. “The ba

Beyond inflationary economics, more students have been taking longer than four years to graduate. If productivity is measured by cost per degree, taking five years to graduate drags productivity down and drives debt up.

In seeking solutions to the crisis of college inflation, many are looking to Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Consortia of universities offer online classes from Intro to Trigonometry to Global Tuberculosis Management. Credits from these courses will increasingly be transferable to the college of your choice. These courses, remote and impersonal, require a motivated student and lack the direct contact with instructors that facilitate learning. But selectively chosen, they can augment the college experience and save money.

Another avenue for reducing costs is College Credit Now (CCN) classes. These high school classes are increasingly accepted by public and private universities. McMinnville High School students earned more than 9,000 college credits last school year alone, worth more than $600,000 at current state tuition costs.

Currently, the cost of a college degree is viewed as a function of the institution: the price per college credit, fees and tuition. But college expenses of the future, the very near future, will increasingly be a function of the student and will begin in high school. Students will have greater power over prices by taking CCNs, taking cheap or free online courses, and accelerating graduation to three years or less.

This shift in responsibility from the college to the student will require more dedication from students and, significantly, from parents. With college essentially starting in high school and an overwhelming abundance of online classes to choose from, parents cannot outsource the educational guidance of their children.

Parents will need to help their children focus at an ever-earlier age on long-term goals. Guidance counselors will continue to be vital, but successful students will be those with involved, supportive parents encouraging their kids to take that College Credit Now course or helping them find useful online courses.

For their part, colleges are striving to rein in their expenses. Both of Yamhill County’s four-year colleges are mindful of the challenge. George Fox University this year has its smallest tuition increase in 30 years, and enrolled its largest freshman class ever this fall. The university has reduced benefits and frozen salaries for its faculty and staff, and closed a Boise teaching site. Linfield has had no salary increase in two of the last four years.

Preston at Linfield recognizes that changes are coming to small colleges and adaptability is central to survival. So far, Linfield has not seen a jump in the number of students graduating in less than four years, despite many arriving with college credits in hand. They use the extra time, he says, for study abroad, double majors or double minors. That pattern may change, and Linfield intends to be ready. Preston points out that Linfield is fiscally sound and dedicated to student success. “There’s a place for small liberal arts colleges. Linfield’s not going to go down easily.”

Colleges are not going away. They provide unique benefits for students by creating an atmosphere of learning and daily interaction with professors and other students.

No online course can duplicate the experience of exchanging and discussing issues and concepts, and there is no substitute for a teacher who takes a personal interest in a student’s success. How to maintain that magic while holding down the price is the challenge for the future.

Guest writer Scott Gibson is a local physician, photographer and occasional polycurious writer who returned to his hometown, McMinnville, in 1989. He has worked as chief of medicine at Willamette Valley Medical Center, is a member of the Lions Club and has served on the McMinnville School Board since 2011. Scott and his wife, Melody, have raised three kids and hosted more than 20 exchange students.

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