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Stretching the Higher Education Dollar: How Innovation Can Improve Access, Equity, and Affordability

reviewed by Kevin Delaney - December 06, 2013

coverTitle: Stretching the Higher Education Dollar: How Innovation Can Improve Access, Equity, and Affordability
Author(s): Andrew P. Kelly & Kevin Carey
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612505945, Pages: 272, Year: 2013
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The general public is rightfully upset about the rising cost of college tuition.  Higher education administrators have responded to this outrage in three ways: 1) pointing out that the actual amount people pay to go to college is often lower than the sticker price, 2) showing people that there are many good, alternative, lower price choices in public universities and community colleges and 3) by marshaling data to demonstrate that a college education is worth the investment despite the high cost.

Lately, it seems like these three responses simply aren’t cutting it anymore.  None of these responses tackles directly the issue of rising tuition. On the first point, many middle and upper class families sending their children to the elite schools do pay close to full sticker price and they express their chagrin as each yearly tuition bill rises, often at a pace faster than inflation. Even if they can “afford” a quarter of a million dollars to send each child to college, they sometimes think this is too steep a price to pay.  On the second point, the major recession that followed the bursting of the housing bubble led to major cuts in state funding to higher education, driving up both in-state and out-of-state tuition while at the same time slashing the value people held in their homes and putting more people at risk of unemployment. At the very strongest public universities, tuition no longer seems the bargain it once was.  Finally, on point number three, in the face of significant underemployment and unemployment among younger people, many question the argument that college is worth the investment no matter what the cost.

The editors of this collection reframe these issues (and perhaps refocus the attendant anger) around the idea that regardless of the validity of any of the above responses, we ought to be driving down both the cost and the price of higher education. We should be do this by taking advantage wherever possible of new technologies, economies of scale and plain old belt-tightening, including cutting costs in administrative bloat and the ever expanding amenities that may not be central to the educational mission of the university. We should also be doing this, lest outsiders eat our lunch by coming into the marketplace with completely new models of higher education. While none have succeeded comprehensively yet, we could reach a tipping point whereby people start to look to alternative provision of higher education in innovations like low-cost or no-cost MOOCs.

This edited collection brings together ten chapters that in one way or another try to bend the cost curve in higher education. Chapter One, by Anya Kamenetz, usefully explores the cost problem at hand setting the stage for the arguments that follow.  Robert Martin places part of the blame on the governance structure in higher education. Douglas Harris details a framework for both thinking about improving productivity and moving toward increases in productivity that might provide cost savings.  Ari Blum and Dave Jarrat give specific lessons drawn from a case study of trying to reduce costs in the provision of student services.  In an interesting chapter, Jeffrey Selingo describes the experience that UNC-Chapel Hill had with hiring consultants Bain & Company to find cost savings. This chapter will make you wonder how effective any of the suggestions in other chapters are likely to be once they hit the windmills of implementation in universities where entrenched constituencies hit the barricades.   

Michael Staton makes the point that if we think in terms of “unbundling” the various services and experiences that colleges provide, we might make some headway in cutting costs by realizing that the traditional college or university need not be the supplier, provider, or even biller of all these experiences. Ben Wildavsky as well as Paul Fain and Steve Kolowich describe MOOCs and other forms of low cost online instruction among the new alternatives.  This area of higher education is moving so quickly it may be hard to keep up with it.  Innovations are coming on a weekly basis, so any discussion of the pros and cons, let alone the feasibility of MOOCs, feels a bit like keeping up with a speeding train.

Paul LeBlanc could be the canary in the coal mine for higher education when he describes Clayton Chistensen’s theory of disruptive innovations that he had studied historically across many industries,  “the incumbent players were smart and well aware of the changes happening around and to them, but their combination of business model, organizational structures, economic realities, and culture did not allow them to fend off the disrupting innovations that came to displace them. They weren’t dumb—they were trapped.”  It will be interesting to see how higher education leaders respond over the next decade. We know they aren’t dumb, but are they trapped? This edited collection will get you thinking about this question as well as thinking about the opportunities and barriers to reducing cost and stretching the higher education dollar.  We need to pair this with a more nuanced understanding (based on more detailed research than the basic ROI studies for college degree) of the “value proposition” offered by colleges and universities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 06, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17344, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:53:04 PM

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About the Author
  • Kevin Delaney
    Temple University
    E-mail Author
    KEVIN J. DELANEY is Professor of Sociology and Vice Dean for Faculty Affairs at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is an economic sociologist with research interests in corporate bankruptcy, the use of public subsidies to build sports stadiums, and the ways in which occupation influences a personís view of money and finance.
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