Higher Ed: Adapt or die

By Christopher Harper

Covid-19 may have created a perfect storm when it comes to higher education, creating an opportunity to take a good, hard look at a college education.

In the past 30 years, the cost of an undergraduate degree has tripled at public schools and more than doubled at private schools, adjusting for inflation. At a four-year, private institution, tuition and room and board averaged $46,950 in 2018. Four-year public colleges charged an average of $20,770 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board. For out-of-state students, the total went up to $36,420.

At roughly the same time, the Federal Reserve estimated that the cost of a college education increased eight times the percentage of wages.

Simply put, the ratio between the cost of a college education and a job is way out of balance.

That equation doesn’t take into account the massive debt that students have amassed as a result of the increased costs.

It’s worth noting that in Pennsylvania, which would be relatively representative of many states, the losses faced by universities have little to do with the classroom. Instead, the losses involve housing, sports, and conferences. Maybe universities should stick to the core mission of educating students and get out of these other businesses. See https://www.inquirer.com/education/coronavirus-stimulus-dollars-penn-state-temple-rutgers-rowan-st-joes-widener-cuts-money-20200420.html

What can be done about the cost of higher education?

The amount of money spent on faculty has decreased over the past few decades as universities hire more adjuncts who receive lower pay and often no benefits.

At the same time, the number of non-teaching personnel on campus, with several administrators at top universities making six-figure salaries with fringe benefits and secretarial support. About two-thirds of university budgets have nothing to do with teaching but instead go toward dormitories, facilities, marketing, and student health.

At Temple University in Philadelphia, where I teach, I have seen a vast expansion of vice deans, assistant deans, associate deans, directors, and assistants to the above over the past 15 years. I don’t know what many of them do, and none of them have visited my classroom.

Higher education will have to expand its offerings of online courses at reduced rates after students and their parents saw that classes could be delivered relatively effectively. That means that faculty will have to come to grips with providing online instruction.

The discussions I have had with faculty about online teaching remind me of my former colleagues in the news business who ignored the implications of the internet more than 20 years ago.

Simply put, colleges and universities must adapt or die.