Father William Byron, S.J.

As the fall 2013 semester opened on college campuses all across the country, the Obama administration showed renewed interest in the finances of higher education. More specifically, the president raised the question of how federal funds can be used more effectively in getting willing students into college classrooms.

He showed signs of wanting to shame inefficient universities into lowering their charges. He also hopes to direct federal student aid toward more efficient and, presumably, lower-cost institutions.

We all know that in recent years college costs have risen at rates that outpaced the rise in family incomes. We all know the debt burden that students are carrying with them when they graduate is too high. We all know that the price to students of public higher education is lower than what they would have to pay for private independent college education, but we also know that state subsidies (this means the taxpayers) are closing the gap between cost and price in the public sector.

What we don’t know is what the forces are behind the rising costs (not just prices, but costs) of higher education. It is a labor-intensive industry and the cost of the well-educated, fully credentialed, highly trained labor needed to fill faculty positions and provide professional staff support is high.

Might class size be a bit larger in order to spread that instructional cost over more tuition-paying students? Faculty members tend not to think so, but if they would yield a bit on this front, they could ease the upward pressure on tuition.

Similarly, faculty members tend to oppose the move toward what are being called “massive open online courses.” Although these courses save on instructional costs, they depersonalize the teaching-learning transaction and dilute the growth-producing peer interaction that classroom contact provides. But introducing some online instruction into the normal collegiate experience would be a cost-saver.

If the student-faculty ratio could rise a bit in the interest of price-reducing productivity, what about the need to trim administrative expenses? Are all of those associate and assistant deans necessary? How about those associate and assistant vice presidents? Not to mention the proliferation of directors and others whose ranks are swelling in order, presumably, to meet rising noninstructional needs. Compounding the problem is the dramatic increase in the use of expensive technology and the need for specialists to operate it and keep it in repair.

Reducing the typical four-year collegiate experience to three would be a money-saver for students. So would a shift from swank to Spartan in the dormitory, student-center and athletic environments, but then “competitive advantage” would be lost to the upscale, facility-rich campuses that attract the wide-eyed young.

President Barack Obama has mentioned performance outcomes as a good measure of value when parents and students are choosing a college. Among them, he would include not just post-graduation employment, but starting salaries — the higher the pay, the better the college, he seems to be suggesting. But what about schools that produce poets, social workers, teachers or civil servants?

Best for the federal government to keep talking to the colleges but to put its student aid in the hands of income-strapped families and trust them to choose wisely in matching up student interest with what in the long run will be best for families and the nation.

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Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.