Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

How to slash college costs

By Richard Vedder, Special to CNN
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Fri August 23, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama is proposing steps to reduce costs of college
  • Richard Vedder says more useful steps would include shortening college to three years
  • He says the number of administrators has grown too much, other costs could be cut
  • Vedder: Year-round schooling and online teaching would do much to reduce tuition

Editor's note: Richard Vedder is distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much."

(CNN) -- While President Obama has reignited a national conversation over rising college costs with his new proposals, those suggestions are unlikely to dramatically lower costs soon. And the president has not given many specific suggestions how to cut these costs that have been rising dramatically faster than people's income. Tuition fees are roughly double the share of income then they were in the 1960s.

Let me offer five suggestions on how to lower post-secondary educational costs. This list is not comprehensive, but full implementation of even some of them could reduce the burden that colleges impose on students, parents and taxpayers.

First, adopt the three-year bachelor's degree as in Europe. Students at prestigious schools like Oxford and Cambridge receive their degrees in three years, and they still get first-class jobs. Diminishing returns sets into collegiate study like anything else, and much of the material in the last two years of college is of marginal importance, with the possible exception of some demanding majors such as engineering and architecture. The feds could simply say undergraduate student eligibility for financial assistance ends after 90 semester hours of study. This approach should reduce the cost of a B.A. degree by something on the order of 25%.

Richard Vedder
Richard Vedder

A less cost-saving variant of the three-year plan would keep the degree at its traditional 120 semester hour length, but have students go to school year-round for three years. We really don't need the summer off to plant crops as people did hundreds of years ago.

Facilities would get greater utilization, lowering capital costs. College graduates would gain an extra year working full-time. Faculty usually will teach additional courses for far less than the average pay per course taught regularly. Maintenance costs of facilities per student would also fall.

Second, make it possible for students to use MOOCs (massively open online courses) and other low-cost, online options, allowing for lower cost "blended" degrees combining perhaps two years of traditional classroom experience with an equal amount of online training. This would cut the cost of quality degrees perhaps 40%. Without any governmental involvement, teachers and entrepreneurs have brought hundreds of high-quality but free or low-cost courses to the internet --Udacity, Coursera, EdX, StraighterLine, Saylor Foundation, Khan Academy and Twenty Million Minds Foundation are examples of a few providers or facilitators of quality instruction. Yet students seldom get credit for these courses. The barriers are not technological, but legal or involve overcoming special interest obstruction.

Students need to be examined on the online material, with safeguards assuring the registered student is actually being tested. Obstacles to accrediting these innovative approaches need to be overcome. The federal government, which accredits the accreditation agencies, could tell these agencies they must allow accredited schools to accept as much as 60% of coursework from MOOC or related providers. The federal government can't deliver the mail or run a national medical care system efficiently, so they should not be the prime mover here. Where is the Gates Foundation or Warren Buffet when we need them?

Keeping student debt down

Third, offer a traditional residential degree for 40% less by dramatically reducing labor and capital costs. The typical university employs twice as many "professional non-instructional personnel" (administrators) per 100 students as it did 40 years ago. Why not create new universities with staffing near the 1970 norms -- a university without sustainability and diversity coordinators or an army of public relations specialists, where faculty teach extensively rather than do trivial research that no one reads, and where there are no expensive intercollegiate athletic programs for the amusement of non-students.

Specifically, ask the faculty to teach four classes per semester instead of two or three. Build few buildings but utilize them extensively, including on Fridays, weekends and summer months. Have a least two faculty members for each administrator (the ratio now is often one to one). Prohibit faculty from teaching trivial courses in their specialty. Do we really need courses on "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame" taught to students who are clueless about Beethoven, Shakespeare and van Gogh? Limit the pay of all employees to no more than that of the president of the United States or less. Could existing universities do this? They haven't, so state governments might have to create new institutions from the ground up.

Fourth, create a National College Equivalence Test similar to the high school GED. A good national test of basic reading, writing, mathematical and general knowledge about our institutions and society could be administered by, say, the Scholastic Testing Service, or ACT. High scores on the test would lead to a "college equivalence certificate." Most students want a diploma as a ticket to a good job. Employers could use scores on the equivalency test as an alternative certification device, and individuals could take the test anytime --even home schooled kids with little formal education.

Fifth, get the federal government out of the student financial aid business. There is good evidence the 11.7% annual growth in federal student financial aid over the past decade (and similar growth earlier) has encouraged colleges to raise tuition fees and finance a costly academic arms race. Lower income Americans are a smaller proportion of recent college graduates than in 1970, before Pell Grants began. If we implement the first four reforms, the need for student financial assistance will dramatically decline.

The current system breeds high dropout rates, rewards poor performance (students lingering in school get more aid than those graduating promptly) and encourages kids to enter college who would be better off entering trade schools or apprentice programs. Ending these inefficient federal programs would save tens of billions annually.

In short, there are lots of thing we can do to make colleges more affordable beyond the president's idea of providing good consumer information by rating colleges.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Vedder.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT