The Problem of the 15K-BA

Ross Douthat and Justin Green are both enthusiastic about the idea from Red State’s Eric Erickson for a $15,000 bachelors degree. The idea for a 15K-BA comes from Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has called for a $10,000 bachelor degree in the Texas state university system. Erickson thinks that the Republicans should make the cost of college education part of their national agenda by withholding federal aid from any college or university that cannot deliver a four-year degree for fifteen grand (total) over four years.

This idea doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. First off, it is a form of free-riding. By requiring that all colleges provide a bachelors degree at such a low price, it is inevitable that prices will rise for people who are still paying full tuition, as they are forced to subsidize the educations of those getting the flat-rate tuition. It is simply not possible to deliver a four-year degree at $3,750 per year.

The reason it is not possible is my point number two: the cost of the degree would be so low that it would have no actual educational value. Any degree seeking to cut costs to that extent would need all of its courses to be taught by adjuncts with hundreds of students per class. There would be no meaningful interaction between faculty and student, nor would such over-stretched faculty be capable of grading assignments more complex than a multiple-choice questionnaire. This degree would involve no class discussions, no office hours, no essays, and no intellectual guidance. In other words, it would involve none of the activities that are typically associated with earning a bachelors degree.

So lets be clear about what Erickson is proposing. He wants a system of higher education run on the cheap that produces lots of low-quality degrees. It should be obvious that a price cap on undergraduate education is therefore not the way forward.

Now, it is no secret why college expenses have gotten out of control. As I have posted here, the inefficient design of curricula plays a role, as do the expansion of collegiate athletics programs and increasing demands for non-academic student services. But there are two other major sources of cost that I have not mentioned before: the growth in university administrative budgets, and the rising cost of books.

As a recent Wall St. Journal article has shown, the big growth in university expenditures is coming from administrative staffing. Slowing down the rate of administrative bloat will generate a corresponding slowdown in tuition increases. One way to do this would be to require that, for schools accepting federal aid, a minimum percentage of every dollar of tuition goes toward teaching and research – much the same way that Obamacare mandates that insurance providers devote a certain threshold of subscriber premiums to health care instead of administration.

The cost of books is a bit trickier. The problem here is not the universities, but rather the nature of the academic publishing industry. Producing and distributing academic literature can be very expensive in some cases, but the main thing to keep in mind is that academic presses are run for-profit while universities are not. Without going into the nitty-gritty of publishing economics (and whether publishers should be allowed to profit from publicly funded research), it’s important to keep in mind that publishers, as for-profit entities, are seeking to maximize their profits, not deliver affordable education.

Short of forcing publishers to become non-profits, a market-based solution will need to be found. One option is to facilitate book exchanges where students can swap their textbooks in a peer marketplace rather than go through the official book store (my own flatmate is setting up just such an exchange at our university). Another would be to separate the cost of online content, which is periodically updated, from the cost of the textbook, which is not. Yet another option (which would facilitate the second option) would be for universities to get more involved in the book-buying process, both by better-stocking their own libraries as well as buying subscriptions to online textbook content in bulk, and building the price in to student tuition.

So there are five areas of growth in education costs: curriculum efficiency, athletics, student services, administrative bloat, and book costs. Not all of these will apply at every university, but probably more than one will. Addressing these problems is the way to address the cost of education, not imposing a $15,000 price tag that would destroy quality.

UPDATE: I wrote the above bit with a report from the Atlantic on academic publishing in mind, but couldn’t find it. Here it is.

UPDATE 2: The original version of this post attributed a link to David Frum, but it was actually written by Justin Green, who was posting on Frum’s blog. The error has been corrected.

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About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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