How to Slash the Cost of an Undergraduate Education

If someone designed a new four-year residential college from scratch, Vance H. Fried with the Cato Institute contends, the cost would run about one fourth of what public research universities incur — and the quality of the instruction would be just as good. Tuitions could be slashed, and students wouldn’t have to enter a state of indentured servitude to get a college degree.

How would Fried do it? First, as he explains in, “Opportunities for Efficiency and Innovation: A Primer on How to Cut College Costs,” he would strip away all extraneous missions. No more diversion of undergraduate tuition revenues to support research, graduate programs or public service missions. The sole focus of undergraduate institutions would be… educating undergraduates.

Second, Fried would redesign the college to improve faculty productivity. Every faculty member would have to teach multiple classes. The mix of class sizes would change — there would be more giant survey classes, more micro-classes where intensive interaction can take place, and far fewer mid-sized classes that lack the economies of the former and the intimacy of the latter. He would refuse to perpetuate perennially under-subscribed classes, and he would judiciously deploy online teaching technologies.

Thirdly, Fried would eliminate administrative bloat. Colleges don’t need so many deans, department heads and support staff.

A final point: Fried’s scheme would pay compensation that is above average for small undergraduate colleges.

Most states, he argues, need to replace their centralized state higher ed bureaucracies with market-driven systems of higher education. They need to bust up public school cartels, which create geographic franchises for different institutions and/or or limit the number of professional schools, for medicine, engineering, or the like. They should foster innovation by encouraging pilot colleges to start with a clean slate and operate free from bureaucratic encumbrance. They should allow private colleges to receive state subsidies as long as they provide corresponding breaks in tuition. And finally, I would add, states should allow failing colleges to go out of business.

The current system of higher ed, in which dinosaur institutions are encased in bureaucratic sediment, is no longer functional. Top-down micro-management will not solve what ails colleges and universities today. Experimentation, market competition and a Darwinian survival of the fittest will.

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