What Price Learning? Thoughts on the higher cost of higher education

By Jon Wurtmann

If you haven’t shopped for a college recently, you’re in for big surprise.  Skyrocketing tuitions seem to defy both gravity and the current economic reality.  The high cost of a university degree is causing some careful introspection from prospective students and their parents.

These higher costs combined with the sluggish economy are creating some interesting phenomena, which are worth noting.

Private Colleges Buckling Down

The majority of small, private colleges run on “green” fuel, or cash.  Typically these schools have enjoyed healthy endowments that have grown in the boom years, and yielded significant operating income from their interest.  Today, both the giving and the accrued interest are down, and it’s causing these smaller schools to reign in spending, which means cutting back faculty positions, programs, and financial aid.  Prospective students may be forced to seek out alternative or aggregate funding options to attend.  Students are advised to investigate tuition assistance early in the interview and selection process.

That said, most graduates of private colleges swear by the quality of the education.

 “It was one of my best investments, and it prepared me for the next steps in my life,” says Peter McCarthy who attended Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, an elite eastern private college with an annual tuition of $51,200.   Twenty years later McCarthy is back to school – as a teacher.  He’s returned to his alma mater as a lecturer and Field Coordinator for the Social Work program, teaching senior seminars and overseeing the clinical and community placement of his students in clinics, hospitals, schools, and facilities throughout the region. “It’s one of the many ways today’s students are receiving value for their tuition dollar.” 

McCarthy also knows firsthand the challenges of meeting tuition payments.  He utilized financial aid and worked a job during his Skidmore years to help pay his way, and says many students today are using the same financial strategies; aid, work-study, and part-time jobs to offset the cost.  “It’s all about the value received; the smaller class sizes, the personal interaction with the professors, the creative thinking, and the academic flexibility.  It’s about investing in better personal outcomes and being actively involved in the fluid process of life.”

State Schools Back in Vogue

State universities are seeing huge increases in interest, applications, and enrollment driven by the rising cost of their private competitors.  This fall, the State University of New York saw its largest enrollment increase – ever.  464,981 students were enrolled in the 64-campus system, an increase of 6 percent, or 25,458 students, over last year, according to the Albany Times Union in a November 17, 2009 story.

"These historic enrollment numbers clearly demonstrate that more people view SUNY as the best option for a world-class education at an affordable price," Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said in a prepared statement.

A full package of tuition, room and board costs around $17,000 at SUNY for in-state students, representing a huge savings from private schools, which can run double that – and more.

The trend-within-a-trend however is at the community colleges, which are seeing the biggest increase of students.  New York State community colleges enjoyed a 9.8 percent enrollment increase over last year. According to the article, Fulton-Montgomery Community College, just outside the Capital District, saw the biggest increase statewide, a whopping 10.1 percent.  All of which brings us nicely to the next thought.

The Half & Half Solution

Community colleges offer local students low cost vocational training, career degrees, and associates degrees, while the student often lives at home, and perhaps holds a part-time job.  But recently two-year colleges are being seen – and used – as low cost “starter” colleges for those who matriculate to a four-year private or state school, where they’ll earn their Bachelor’s degree.  Some colleges, like New York’s Excelsior College, a distance learning institution, even advertise their liberal credit acceptance policies for community college students.  On their website, they promote their convenient terms:

Excelsior College accepts undergraduate credits from a wide variety of sources. In general, Excelsior College accepts credits from those colleges and universities that are regionally accredited; those recognized by the New York State Education Department; and those that have been evaluated by the Excelsior College faculty and found to follow acceptable educational practices and apply toward our degree programs. 

Beyond that, Excelsior and other colleges offer portfolio-based assessments, which review both the applicant’s past learning experiences and work experience.

Go East Young Man

An interesting new trend is developing among financially stressed California college students: Attending out-of-state colleges as part of a University of California exchange program.  The Western Undergraduate Exchange offers UC students a chance to study in their choice of 140 participating colleges and universities throughout the west.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that some 5,000 California undergrads are participating in the program, up from just 1,800 five years ago.  According to the September 17, 2009 article:

The WUE program, run by the Boulder, Colo.-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, lets residents of Western states enroll at programs outside of their home state at a reduced rate. Students have to apply early and meet each school's eligibility requirements. (California's WUE kids aren't invited to apply to the University of Oregon because the state says it couldn't handle the deluge.)

Of the nation's four regional exchange programs — in New England, the South and Midwest — the Western exchange is the largest and broadest

While the participating colleges charge 150% of the rate for in-state students, it’s still a comparative bargain.  For example, UC plans to raise annual tuition for 2010 to $10,302.  A UC student utilizing the WUE program and attending the University of Montana would pay only $7,800.  On top of that many of the non-California schools offer lower cost-of-living, cheaper housing, and smaller class sizes.

One UC student from Los Gatos student currently attending the University of Montana put it this way, "Getting outside of the general California culture was a great benefit to me.  Needless to say, the WUE made it a little bit more financially viable." 

Featured Schools