No-frills college

Writing in Gadfly, Chester Finn makes some practical suggestions to cut college costs for students who’d just as soon do without the deluxe recreation center if they could earn a degree with less debt. Finn suggests letting students pay for amenities and services they really want, instead of folding everything into the tuition bill. In addition:

A year-round, four-quarter calendar with facilities in constant use, steady work for employees and the opportunity for energetic students to finish in three years.
Faculty paid well but worked hard: a full teaching load, no tenure, and the expectation that their job is to teach. (Those wanting to engage in research raise grant dollars and “buy out” some of their teaching time.)
A trimmed-down curriculum with a solid core and strong majors in a dozen fields. Those wanting to study social work, broadcasting, expressive dance, or contemporary Somali politics would see that No-Frills U is not the school for them. It makes no pretense of teaching everything.
Rigorous exit standards with diplomas equivalent to an intellectual “warranty.”
Students pay for themselves, with outside grants and loans and suchlike for those who are eligible but no “Robin Hood” behavior within the college’s own budget.

Public university costs are now soaring; it’s not just a problem at private colleges. Yet no-frills education is being provided by for-profits like the University of Phoenix and coursework increasingly is available online.

Because distance learning makes it possible not only to slash campus expenses but also to extend the “reach” of a given professor to far more students than one could ever teach face-to-face, it serves willy-nilly to boost academic productivity. The fact that more students now assemble their college credits from multiple providers—the academic equivalent of “grazing”—puts considerably more leverage into the consumer’s hands and correspondingly less in those of producers.

The trick is to write student-aid rules that provide access while encouraging colleges to be more productive.

California’s second-tier university system may turn away about 20,000 eligible students next year due to the state budget crisis. I wonder whether the universities will decide on the basis of academic preparation or simply on when the student applied. A majority of California State University freshmen must take remedial English or math classes.

About Joanne


  1. Wow. If only.

    Chester Finn’s ideas make perfect sense to me. The trouble is: Are they implementable in the real world, when faced not only with academia’s entrenched interests but more and more wannabe university students who have no idea what a “real” BA or BS should entail? I can see a new start-up No-Frills U embodying Finn’s vision, but reforms at existing institutions will be difficult and slow at best.

    There has to be slashing at both ends. We have to get the message out there that college is NOT for everyone. Universities are bloated by ever larger numbers of unqualified students. This is a recipe for disaster, and we’re already tasting the consequences. The words “remedial English” and “university” should not go together. But they too often do.

  2. Yep.

    See above.

  3. jeff wright says:

    Competition. If you build it, they will come. The only real problem with this—and, IMO, it’s a serious problem—many people, including employers, are more interested in the school name on the diploma than in what the student actually learned. The fact is, a Berkeley degree in “Being Nice to Those Less Fortunate,” or some such nonsense for which UC-Berkeley is known, may be worth a lot worth than a University of Phoenix degree.

    Incidentally, although I’ve not attended U of Phoenix, some folks who worked for me several years ago did, and, inasmuch as I was the approving authority for the corporate education benefit, I saw what tuition cost. Those guys are not cheap. Maybe because the majority of their students get corporate help.

  4. Jeff,

    You’re right about the prestige problem. It might take decades for, say, U of Phoenix graduates to develop a name for themselves as “doers” as opposed to “paper-holders.”

  5. How about –

    – pay as you go for athletic facilities?

    – more options for students who want to cook for themselves rather than paying the cafeteria? If you are a light eater in a dorm full of athletes, or a vegetarian in a dorm full of carnivores, you know what I mean…

    – more options for students who don’t mind picking up after themselves? I lived in a dorm where we cooked & cleaned ourselves. Much MUCH cheaper. Of course, you could live in an apartment off campus and do this, but what about the student who wants the community of the dorm minus the cost of paying chefs & cleaning services?

  6. In part this is reasonable, but if research is eliminated, where is new knowledge going to come from?

  7. jeff wright says:

    Even as I type this, I’m listening to a fellow named Gene Burns, who has the 7-10 PM slot on KGO-810 in San Francisco, which is the top-rated AM station in our market and in fact the entire country. Burns, a 60-ish, curmudgeonly type but not a right-winger (in fact, KGO has no right-wingers) is addressing the subject of the Cal State remedial courses. Burns makes the following points:

    1. College is no place for people who can’t read, write or do college-level math.

    2. College is no place for people who can’t speak English, which is the lingua franca of the nation and of the college campuses.

    3. Rather than blaming the secondary schools for these poorly-prepared students, Burns places the blame squarely on the students and on their parents.

    4. Taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for these remedial classes. A true capitalist, Burns suggests that if the schools were to refuse to offer remedial courses and taxpayers were to refuse to foot the bill, a whole separate cottage industry of college-prep academies would spring up. Burns says these students didn’t prepare themselves in high school and they should accordingly pay for the remedial education.

    Burns makes a whole lot of sense to me, especially when I look at tuition rates for California universities and the concomitant taxpayer subsidies. I mean, we’re talking on the order of $7-10K or so subsidy per student, per year.

    And this is a state with a budget deficit greater than that of the other 49 combined. You non-Californians: don’t waste your sympathy on us. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

  8. I tend to agree, no remedial coursework at college should be footed by the taxpayer. If a student needs to take remedial coursework in english/math or whatever, they can pay the entire cost of the class themselves. Then perhaps they’ll bust their ass studying like they should have been in high school (naww, that would hurt their self-esteem).


  9. But, but, but, what about those wonderful people who run the Womyn’s centers at colleges? They need to eat too! And the invaluable contributions of the Gay Studies department? And the folks who run the speech codes centers?
    These folks need jobs too!

  10. Walter Wallis says:

    Lower division and all repeat all remedial in community colleges [except for football players].
    Universities, Ideally only for post grad. For the Social Sciences, I occasionally get these ads from “Prestigous, non-accredited Universities” that would serve the purpose well.

  11. Much akin to my resentment at my college bill. I am taking online courses, why do I have to pay an Activities fee in addition to paying an extra technology fee for my online courses?

  12. Most of those “amenities” are built in response to market demand. Prospective college students have wide choice in schools, and one of the things many of them want is a fancy fitness facility (I tried to avoid the alliteration, but it’s too early to come up with an alternative). That said, a really good–and attractive–library usually helps attract students too.

  13. I took a lot of Distance Learning classes my last year of college. The shocker is, that those typically cost more than the in-class courses taught at the same university.

  14. Walter Wallis says:

    Without mandatory activity fees, how could they pay radical speakers to come on campus to trash the United States and Ralph Nader to trash capitalism?

  15. As a CSU grad, I was always appalled by the number of remedial classes being offered in both English and Math. I’ve long thought that, given the vast number of community colleges that exist in California and their VERY reasonable tuition, anybody who didn’t pass the entry level math and reading tests ought to be required to make up that work at a JC. Admission to the university could be done on a provisional basis; you can come next year, if you can pass the classes to get into college level math and English 1A.

    Of course, that would put a lot of TAs out of work, but oh well.

    I’ve also thought that one of the things that ought to happen in this country is the acceptance of technical schools. I can’t begin to tell you how many students I encountered while working at SJSU’s bookstores who were CS, business, or engineering majors who had absolutely no interest in the “liberal arts” part of their “liberal arts education.” There’s no incentive for them to go to DeVry or some other technical school, which will teach them the skills they want, when employers want a degree from a 4-year school. It was really beginning to feel like SJSU was turning into a trade school while I was there from ’97-’01. Those of us in the Social Sciences and Humanities felt forgotten a lot of the time. Probably because nobody was giving our departments millions of dollars. 🙂

  16. Wacky Hermit says:

    Sue, that’s exactly how it was at a UC 13 years ago (has it been 13 years already???) when I was there. Math courses started at calculus. If you weren’t quite ready for calculus you were admitted provisionally, on the condition that you take your college algebra course over at the community college and pass it during your first year at the UC. One of my freshman year suitemates had to do that.

  17. jeff wright says:

    Sue, SJSU IS a trade school. I live in San Jose and I’ll bet half the students don’t speak English, at least not well enough to take serious liberal arts classes. You should have gone to Berkeley or Stanford. Oh, I forgot. They cost a lot more. So what if our local CSU campus really sucks when it comes to liberal arts, something we traditionally associate with college? I mean, this is Silicon Valley, don’t you know? So what if all those EE and programming jobs are going to India?

  18. Robert Campbell says:

    Chester Finn’s full article is worth reading–especially since the first item on his list was not quoted above.

    Finn’s *first* item is cutting administrative and non-faculty staff positions to a minimum.

    Administration has grown explosively at American universities over the past generation or so. Where I work, the number of administrators doubled between the mid-1980s and the mid-90s, and has since been maintained at that level despite years of budget woes and a drop in the number of professors.

    If you’re serious about cutting costs, cutting administration is crucial.

    Besides that, the tenure system looks so good to a lot of professors because they see it as a protection against arbitrary firing by bad managers. Cutting administration to the bone and making the remaining administrators much more accountable than they are now will substantially reduce faculty resistance to “non tenure granting” institutions.