Rethinking the Higher Education Model: Controlling Costs and Supporting Completion

The EvoLLLution | Rethinking the Higher Education Model: Controlling Costs and Supporting Completion
The postsecondary model is unsound, and that is becoming increasingly evident to today’s students. More must be done to help control costs and to support their persistence and completion.

In recent years, much has been written and said about the higher education model. More and more challenges facing students have been unearthed as the industry’s focus has shifted from access—opening the door—to retention and completion. However, institutions are not doing nearly enough to support the success of their learners. In this interview, Paul Weinstein discusses this phenomenon and shares his thoughts on how the postsecondary model must evolve to address those obstacles and support persistence.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Over the past two decades, higher education’s focus has been squarely on access. Arguably now, and for the foreseeable future, the focus will be on retention and completion. What kinds of challenges does this fundamental mindset change for college and university leaders?

Paul Weinstein (PW): In recent years, there has been a wide-spread recognition that retention is a real problem. If you go to universities or colleges, most of them have retention plans in place, which are a mixture of outreach, advising, counselling and support.

Part of the problem is that the high dropout rates are pretty significant, and while these retention efforts can help with the easier cases, a lot of students are dropping out because of more systemic and deep-seeded issues. Most of the studies exploring dropout rates point to a few major factors. Cost is obviously a big one. They also point to stress, which is often related to cost alongside other issues that come up like family commitments, health issues and so forth. Finally and most importantly—one that is mostly beyond the schools’ reach, but not totally—is preparedness. A lot of students feel their high schools did not prepare them for the rigors of college and so some universities focused on retention are offering remedial programming to improve writing skills, math skills and other basic skills students need in college.

It’s good that we’re focusing on retention, but the solutions are not really addressing the core problems.

Evo: What are institutions doing to drive their retention rates?

PW: These plans are aimed at developing a coherent, institution-wide retention strategy.  A lot of that involves outreach to students—having people who call students when they’re missing a certain number of classes and encouraging professors to reach out to students. Others are offering remedial courses that are attempting to make up some of the academic skills students need at college. Universities and colleges would also say they’re handing out more scholarships, which they are. All told, more schools are throwing more money at the problem, along with the federal government who is also throwing more and more money at the problem.

However, the cost of tuition and books—as well as the cost of living and everything else—is going up more dramatically than the amount of aid available.

It’s important to note that one of the reasons we’re having these retention problems is because the cost of attending college has gone up so much that it’s creating additional pressures. As such, a lot of students are just starting college and looking at these costs and cannot cope.

For-profit institutions, where you’re seeing really low retention and graduation rates, are a whole other issue. More and more, we’re seeing at the policy level a targeting of these institutions and we’re trying to identify ways to make sure that they are not misleading students about their ability to finish the programs.

Evo: On the non-traditional side, we hear a lot about the importance of credit transferability and recognition of prior learning so that adults can move closer to a degree. How does this thinking translate into the traditional space when it comes to high school students moving directly into a postsecondary environment?

PW: In terms of my research, I’m actually looking specifically at the acceptance or the transferability of Advance Placement (AP) credits, which are college-level courses that students take in high school before being tested in an AP examination. If they reach a certain score in these courses, we count them as college credit.

What I’ve been looking at—because I’m focused on how we can move toward a standard three-year bachelor’s degree—is the acceptability of AP credits, because that’s one way for us to get there. My research is showing that colleges and universities are making it increasingly difficult for students to get postsecondary credit for their AP work. Only a very small number of schools accept all the AP subject areas for credit, and in fact there’s a growing number of schools that actually don’t accept AP credits at all. Some schools also do other things to restrict AP credit transfers; one thing that’s very common is capping the number of AP credits students can apply toward postsecondary credit.  A school might, for example, accept 20 of the AP subject areas but will only allow students to apply four of their AP courses for credit. Other schools are raising the bar for the AP scores they will accept for credit.

These are all things being done to minimize the ability for students to receive postsecondary credit for AP courses—and to accelerate their degree track. The travesty of this is that we have more and more students taking AP exams, which is a good thing because college retention rates for students who take AP courses in high school is incredibly high. We should want students to be taking these AP courses and one way to incentivize that is to give them a credit when they excel.

Evo: What are a few other trends that are reshaping the higher education space?

PW: There are a lot of different trends impacting higher education. The inability of colleges and universities to get a handle on their own costs, their own budgets and reducing their own expenditures is a continuing problem.

The growing movement towards online education—particularly at the part-time graduate level—is a response to this that we’re seeing more and more of, but in my mind it has not yet proven to be a real cost saver. There are issues that we have to look at in online education such as quality. I think online education can be just as high-quality as on-campus offerings, but it has to be done in the right way. There is so much promise in MOOCS—these massive online courses that are arguably supposed to be relatively cheap—but we have to look at whether the students are getting the full benefit. We’re still seeing a lot of debate at the policy level, particularly from the Democrats, around continued financial support for students and improving affordability and access. I applaud that and want to see as much access and affordability as possible. Most of the proposals call for states and public universities to restrain their spending in order to get the variety of new aid that they want to offer, and I think that’s something to be applauded. However, many proposals also promise to continue to expand assistance to students and the problem with that is it essentially feeds the beast. These spending expansions allow school to continue to raise tuition and fees without any penalty.

I don’t feel that we’ve seen the full impact of some of the technological changes that we’re talking about when it comes to reducing cost. We haven’t really addressed the drivers of higher postsecondary costs either.

Evo: What do you think the higher education landscape is going to look like in a two decades’ time?

PW: We will inevitably see more government support for higher education, with the government picking up more of the tab than they do now. We’re going to see that regardless of whether the existing systems remain in place. Even if we find ways of pushing schools to restrain their expenditures, we’re going to have to see greater government support or higher education just won’t be affordable.

We’re going to see most students enrolling part time, especially at the graduate levels, and more and more of students learning online. I unfortunately don’t think that they’ll be seeing huge cost savings in terms of tuition rates—though I hope they do.

Ultimately, affordability is going to remain a top-of-mind concern for students. There will be more proposals to push more people into community colleges, and I have mixed feelings about that, but that’s the direction we seem to be heading into because of affordability. More students are turning down the non-profit private institutions—not necessarily the top 50 private schools—but you’re going to see more and more students declining to enroll at private colleges and universities because of affordability. Over the long term, some non-profit and for-profit institutions are going to go out of business as a result. To this end, we’re going to see a large number of institutions go out of business because people won’t be able to go and because there won’t be enough financial aid to support those institutions.

I also think that we’re going to continue to see the amount of time it takes students to finish their college education go up. The average may well become seven or even eight years to earn a bachelor’s degree, and that’s going to have significant ramifications for our economy.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the trends that are shaping the postsecondary space and the reactions that you’re seeing to some of those changes?

PW: Students are becoming more and more agitated, and I think they should. Many of my colleagues feel the current situation not sustainable. I certainly I hope in 20 years the situation will have changed.

The more optimistic side of me would say, “Because this model is not sustainable, we’re going to go through a period where we will have to rethink higher education and the schools themselves are going to have to come together.”

That’s not easy to imagine because academia is so decentralized and academics have such a hard time reaching a consensus on these issues. However, at some point, university presidents are going to need to come together and try to figure out what is the right approach for moving forward.  Spending more on the current approach, as some have suggested, that gives more aid to more and more students is not sustainable when you look at its cost of $350 billion and given current budgetary constraints. It’s not likely that we’re going to actually see such legislation pass, at least not in the current environment. That leaves us again at the loan position, and the loan position is also not sustainable.

This crisis is going to start forcing schools out of business and, ironically, that’s going to put us back to around the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when we were having that same debate, where private schools were essentially starting to feel the pressure and asking for federal support. We’re getting to the point where model change is not an option, but we’re not there yet.

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Key Takeaways

  • Though many colleges and universities have retention plans in place to support student persistence and completion, few delve deeply into solving some of the structural issues in higher education that truly impact completion.
  • Colleges and universities simply need to do more to understand and control their costs.
  • Institutions must also do more to ensure students can apply previously earned credit to accelerate their time to completion.