Economic Reality Comes to College Campuses

Finally, colleges get schooled in Economics 101.

Sweet Briar College (1901-2015?)
Sweet Briar College (1901-2015?)

For a long time, “market forces” didn’t really apply to institutions of higher learning — at least not in the classic sense.

In a social environment where nearly everyone buys into the notion that more education is good, government and educators fostered policies where no one need be prevented from getting a college education because of lack of funding.

Accordingly, in the past several decades, loans and grants became easier to obtain than ever.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of easy money in education was that tuitions rose at a faster rate than the economy as a whole.  After all, the third-party money spigot seemed never-ending.

For a good while tuition spikes weren’t a particular concern, because it still seemed as though a college-level education was a great way to earn substantially more money in one’s career — even if racking up student loans at the outset.

But in recent years, we no longer see an automatic positive correlation between a higher education degree and the ability to earn increased income.

In the sluggish economy of the 2000s, a college diploma in the right field may well be a good investment.  But with many college majors, oftentimes it isn’t.

The situation is even dicier for the many students who attend community colleges or four-year institutions but who never graduate.  The chasm between their educational loans and their earning power is even more deep.

Corinthian Colleges
Corinthian Colleges (1995-2015)

And for those students unlucky enough to attend for-profit institutions like those run by Corinthian Colleges, Inc., which is in the process of closing the last two dozen of its schools across the country, the situation is even worse.

Saddled with student debt, stuck with degrees or half-completed courses of study of dubious value, and with school credits unlikely to be transferred to other schools in order to finish their education, the situation for those  unlucky students can only be described as dire.

How did we get to this place?

One big reason is that over the years, many colleges got into the habit of simply expecting sufficient numbers of students to enroll in their institutions regardless of the sticker price to attend.  If anything, high tuition “list prices” were a badge of honor.

At the same time, substantial grants (essentially discounts off of the published tuition rates), together with irresistible financial aid packages, continued to attract students to private as well as public institutions of all stripes.

Running in parallel with this were lavish, ongoing projects involving the construction of fancy new dorms, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, and all sorts of other creature-comfort-like amenities to lure students to campus.

And let’s not forget another not-so-welcome outcome of this fantasyland of higher education economics – call it “degree inflation.”  With so many students obtaining undergraduate degrees, their “worth” became devalued.

In this high-stakes derby, a BS degree in business is no longer enough – it has to be an MBA.  A BS degree in engineering isn’t nearly as prestigious as a Master’s degree or a PhD.  There’s really no end to it.

The convergence of these sobering economic and social trend lines makes it pretty clear that the “old” business model is no longer working for colleges and universities.  With the economic realities of today, college administrators are discovering that, sooner or later, market forces work.  And the resulting picture isn’t very pretty.

So now we’re witnessing the lowest percentage increases in tuition sticker prices we’ve seen in years, across private institutions and even some public ones as well.  Bloated administrative staffs  — their numbers dwarfing the number of teachers at some colleges — have finally plateaued or even begun to decline.

Being the parent of two children who graduated from college within the past five years, naturally I’ve been quite interested in these trends – and I’ve viewed them pretty close-up.

What I’ve determined is that for years, administrators at many colleges and universities didn’t see themselves as working within a market system — having to compete where market forces were at work.  The often-unappealing business of being disciplined by market forces didn’t pertain to them — or so they thought.

That’s certainly not the case anymore.

And there’s another huge factor looming on the horizon:  Distance learning.  I’ll be here big-time before we know it … and it promises to upend the college education business model as never before.

What are your thoughts on this topic?  Please share them with other readers here.

College aspirations: Talk versus action.

College participation ratesPollsters like to point out that people will sometimes voice an opinion about an activity, a product or a political candidate — but what they say doesn’t match the reality.

If that’s the case, it makes the recent revelation that ~42% of ~500 Austrians surveyed in a Market Institut poll believe that Adolf Hitler’s rule “wasn’t all bad” even more scary than it sounds at first blush.

Bringing things back closer to home, a report issued in August 2012 by the National Center for Education Statistics states that ~96% of female high school seniors want to go to college … and that among male seniors, it’s only a tad lower at ~90%.

But here’s the actual reality: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that fewer than 60% of 18-24 year olds are actually enrolled in college or have earned their higher education degree.

Enrolling in college doesn’t necessarily mean graduating, either. Only one-third of 25-34 year olds held a college degree as of 2011 (36% of women and 28% of men).

Why aren’t kids going to college even though the vast majority of high school seniors say they want to attend? There are the predictable reasons:

  • Can’t afford college tuition
  • Entered the workplace instead
  • Didn’t graduate from high school (~16% of 18-24 year olds haven’t actually earned their high school diplomas)

But perhaps we’re beginning to see bit of a shift in thinking, too.

Most parents – and many school systems as well – hold up college prep as the primary objective of high school curricula and learning-related activities. But some may be looking at the less-than-lucrative job prospects of graduating college seniors and realizing that the traditional four-year college course of study isn’t the clear ticket to a gainful career that it once was.

Online learning, distance learning, technical training and hands-on mentoring are other post secondary education options that may looking more viable to some — particularly males.

In fact, fewer than 50% of males are enrolling in four-year educational institutions following high school, while for females, it’s closer to 75%. 

It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out over the coming decade.  Perhaps then we’ll have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight to see if these trends were a potent of bad things society … or not.

The “ol’ college try” … Not good enough anymore?

The questionable college degree ... along with crushing student debt.I’ve blogged before about the increasing concerns many people have regarding the quality of college education in America. Now, several new data points should make every parent of college-age kids – or children who will be ready for college soon – take additional notice.

The first interesting news tidbit is that total student debt, which surpassed the country’s credit card debt for the first time in August 2010, now tops $1 trillion. Compare that to student debt being only around $200 billion as late as 2000.

So we’re talking an increase of ~400% in a little over a decade, which is miles more than the inflation rate over this period. Average debt now stands at almost $23,000 per student, which is a spike of ~8% over the past year alone.

And just what are students getting for all the money they’re spending (or borrowing) for their higher education? If you want to know the ugly truth, check out the recently published book Academically Adrift by sociologists Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum [ISBN-13: 978-0226028569 … also available in a Kindle edition].

Based on the information presented in this book, some grads might wish to haul their colleges up on charges of educational malpractice. Full-time instructional faculty has declined from 78% of college teachers in 1970 to only around 50% today.

Roksa and Arum also report that college faculty members spend, on average, just 11 hours per week on instructional preparation and delivery … the rest of their time is spent on research and a slew of administrative activities.

And how about the “quality” of the education that’s being delivered? If we wish to view that in terms of the amount of time students are spending on their studies, the stats aren’t trending in the right direction. The book claims that whereas the typical college student in the early 1960s devoted an average of 40 hours each week to academic work, today’s students now spend only about 27 hours per week on studies. So in what way is the substantial extra money being extracted from students being used to delier a better quality product?

Here’s the next shocker: ~85% of college graduates are moving back home following graduation. This information comes from a 2011 field survey conducted by Philadelphia-based market research firm Twentysomething, Inc. Compared to the firm’s prior surveys, that represents a spike of nearly 20 percentage points in only five years.

Of course, we all know the economy has been a major problem over the past few years, with jobs hard to come by even for seasoned workers. But to learn that fewer than one in six college students are moving out on their own following college graduation means that precious few grads are coming out of school with the ability to land jobs that can sustain an independent lifestyle — however modest.

With stats as dismal as these, is it any wonder why some people are seeking an alternative paradigm for higher education other than the “four years away from home” model? Enrollment figures at America’s community colleges have been skyrocketing. Online education is also booming, despite lingering concerns about learning standards and accreditation.

Some economists such as Richard Vedder are suggesting making radical reforms in the way that financial aid is provided – and to whom – while other observers are pushing for more recognition of learning credentials that take us beyond a BS or BA degree.

Many of these ideas strike at the very heart of what we’ve always been conditioned to believe about a four-year college education as the gateway to a better life. But with today’s reality being so far removed from the theory (fantasy?) … some out-of-the-box ideas and approaches are exactly what are needed now.

A Surprise? College Students are Ambivalent about e-Books

College textbooks
Surprisingly, college textbooks still reign supreme over their digital counterparts.
The digital revolution is having its first and greatest impact on the younger generations. Whether it’s mobile apps, hyper-texting, online gaming, or keeping up on the news without the benefit of the daily paper, they’re the ones most on the cutting edge.

So it might be somewhat surprising to read the results of a survey of college kids about how they prefer to access their textbook information. I’ve blogged before about the racket that is college textbook publishing – a rip-off if ever there was one. So one would think that college students (and their parents if they foot the bill) would be very keen on any advancements that begin to render expensive textbooks obsolete.

But according to a survey conducted in mid-2010 by OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores, only 13% of college students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the previous semester.

And of that percentage, ~56% revealed that the prime mover of their e-book purchase was because it was required course material for class, not because they chose an available e-version over a printed version of the textbook.

What’s more, nearly three-fourths of the students in this survey stated that they prefer printed textbooks over digital versions.

And when it comes to what devices people are using to view their e-books, most are accessing the contents on laptop computers rather than newer devices that have hit the streets in recent times:

 Prefer reading e-books on a laptop computer: ~77%
 Prefer reading on a desktop computer: ~30%
 Prefer reading on a smartphone: ~19%
 Prefer reading on a Kindle or similar e-reader device: ~19%
 Prefer reading on an iPad or similar device: ~4%

Laura Cozart, a manager at OnCampus Research, had this to say about the survey results: “The findings of the report are not surprising. Every new innovation takes time before the mainstream population embraces it.”

Reflecting the current situation, of the NACS member stores that offer digital content, e-books comprise only ~3% of course material sales. But NACS is expecting that percentage to rise to 10% or 15% by 2012.

But the impetus behind that anticipated increase is expected to come from faculty members as they get more familiar and comfortable with the interactive possibilities to enhance their classroom instruction — rather than from those oh-so 21st Century students.

It wouldn’t be the first time the “leading edge” meets the “back edge” going around the other side.

College Textbooks: It’s Time to Throw the Book at Them

college textbooksConsidering that the digital revolution has dramatically improved access to information pretty much across the board, while also lowering the price of delivering the content to consumers, doesn’t it seem like college textbook publishing has been operating in something of a time warp?

Anyone with kids enrolled in college in recent years (present company included) has likely been confronted by obscenely high bills for textbooks. In fact, stats reported by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reveal that college students spend an average of ~$900 per year on textbooks. When you consider that some courses don’t even have textbooks, the average cost for those classes that do is even higher than the overall figures would suggest.

What gives here? You can blame a number of factors. High among them are publishers that issue new editions of the same textbook every year or so; never mind the fact that 95%+ of the material is identical to prior editions. And so, perfectly good textbooks that could be used by different students over multiple years are instead relegated to the trash or a box in the basement. Or they languish, unwanted, at the book nook at the local thrift store.

And how about publishing books using expensive and high-margin hardcover binding when soft-cover would be more than adequate? That’s a common publisher ploy.

Finally, let’s not forget the “unholy alliance” between college bookstores and book publishers to try to corner as much of the college textbook business as possible. After all, those textbook sales represent a major contributor to college store profits.

Thankfully, recent developments suggest that real alternatives for students (and their beleaguered parents) have now emerged. Some of these resources are web sites like eBay’s Half.com where students can purchase books for substantially less than the published price. Or Chegg, where students can rent the books and return them following their use. Of course, this is assuming you know the correct ISBN number of the books in question and can be sure you’re ordering the correct edition. Often, that’s not an easy feat at all based on how hard some school stores try to hide the ISBN information from purchasers.

The ISBN information will also serve you in good stead when searching for used textbooks on sites like Amazon where the ISBN numbers are included in book listings.

But beyond simply finding sites to purchase books at a cheaper price, there are new digital alternatives that are also cropping up. CourseSmart provides digital versions of textbooks that are viewable online or can be downloaded. Not only is the cost much less, but students can choose to print out texts chapter by chapter or simply keep their textbooks on their computer, leaving more space in their backpacks for more important things like electronic gadgets, food and bottled water. For now, most of the CourseSmart choices are from major publishers like McGraw-Hill and Wiley, but these offerings are sure to expand in coming years.

Another interesting development is engaging the course instructors themselves in developing custom reading materials. That’s what Flat World Knowledge is doing: It’s an open-source textbook provider that offers online books through a web-based reader, free of charge. Professors can get in on the action by customizing what’s offered to their own specific course by rearranging book chapters and removing or adding text. Not only does it make their course syllabus more user-friendly for students, it’s a labor saver for the instructors as well.

How does Flat World make money doing this? Students can pay for “premium” upgrades such as PDF printing, audio files, and interactive quizzes that are offered along with the free basic text information.

As to which of these new services will turn out to be tomorrow’s standard way of acquiring course instruction materials … who knows? But one thing’s for certain: the cost of buying textbooks won’t be nearly the monetary challenge it’s been for students and parents up til now.