Published on 2013/09/20
How to Make College Affordable
Colleges and universities can introduce a number of measures to reduce costs for their non-traditional students.

It’s no wonder college affordability is in the news so much these days, given that tuition has risen over the past 30 years at a rate that surpasses even healthcare costs. Shifting state appropriations, spiraling costs (including providing healthcare to university employees) and other factors have conspired to create our current situation, and on top of all of that, we now learn from the Census Bureau that college enrollments were down by almost 500,000 students from 2011 to 2012.

But there are still many people for whom education is the key to their future, so how can institutions help these learners manage the cost of achieving their goal? As is often the case, I find some simple words of wisdom from my father appropriate: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, the whole world starts looking like a nail.”

With apologies to Abraham Maslow, higher learning institutions have huge investments in the tools of the trade: facilities, faculties and degree programs.  And while these served students well for generations, modern times require other tools to fill up our toolbox and keep costs low for non-traditional learners.

Here are a few that come to mind, and I suspect readers can offer many more that will be of value:

  • Focus on advising both applicants and students, and capture what you learn in that process to inform new program development, support services and student recruitment efforts

  • Don’t sell a degree to a certificate seeker; give them what they need. Additionally, while most certificate seekers do not become degree seekers, treat them like they will anyway, because if nothing else, they are talking about your institution to family and friends

  • Deconstruct your degrees and even individual courses to create certificates that make sense within the context learned in your advising activities above

  • Use your faculty wisely to assure quality, and cultivate a pool of adjuncts that understand adult learners. These individuals frequently do a great job, represent your institution well and save you from overusing full-time members of a campus faculty

  • Partner with employers to meet their needs, because doing so will ultimately meet the needs of your adult learners

  • Think about pricing that makes sense — set prices based on value rather than seat time or credits and, when possible, use volume to drive costs down for individual learners

  • Similarly, use online formats to cut costs and, when possible, hybridize courses to get the best of both worlds and save money (and travel and time) for the student

  • Offer no-frills programs. Rather than offering multiple electives, provide programs that are lock-step and build spiraling curricula that provides flexibility to a student population that can’t always stay in step

  • Take a look at Prior Learning Assessment, Massive Open Online Courses and other implements that might speed up the time to degree or certificate

And whatever you do, don’t overlook your continuing education (CE) unit. They probably already know how to lower the cost of attendance while bolstering the good name of the institution. If you don’t have a CE unit, build one!  They will be worth their weight in gold in the new economy of badges and certificates that are only going to become more prevalent in the coming years.

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Readers Comments

Kyle W 2013/09/20 at 11:35 am

I’m shocked by Rawls’ suggestion to use adjuncts to replace full-time faculty. This is the classic example of cutting corners and sacrificing quality education for the sake of saving a few bucks. Now, I’m not saying adjunct faculty are less capable than tenured, full-time faculty. However, the truth is, many adjuncts work under poor conditions, where they are forced to juggle multiple, low-paying teaching jobs just to make ends meet, and where they often work without benefits. This model is unsupportable and is a disservice to both students and staff. This is not how to make college affordable; this is how to cheapen it.

Vera Matthews 2013/09/20 at 12:03 pm

I agree that one disingenuous tactic that has crept into higher education is how we try to “upsell” students by encouraging certificate seekers to enroll in a diploma or degree program. This is unfortunate, as they often end up in programs that don’t suit their needs or learning style. They may become frustrated and have difficulty finishing their credential. This not only taints their experience with the institution (and, consequently, the institution’s reputation), but it also puts a strain on institutional resources such as academic advising, counselling and financial aid that these students seek out to get them through their experience.

Patricia Lawerence 2013/09/20 at 4:29 pm

It’s important to offer “no frills” options for adult students. For example, adult students — even some online ones — are often forced to pay ancillary fees that go toward programs they never access. Programs should be set up so that the extras are “opt-outable.”

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