Champagne Education on a Beer Budget?

, George C. Leef, Leave a comment

In a recent Clarion Call, I lamented the fact that when higher education types get together to talk about the problem of affordability, they almost always conclude that the solution is to spend more government money to further subsidize college attendance. Very rarely do they consider ways of delivering education that will simply cost less.

At least one professor has given this some serious thought, however. Vance Fried, the Brattain Professor of Management at Oklahoma State University, has set forth a proposal that he believes will enable students to get “champagne education on a beer budget.” (You can read his proposal in full here.)

Professor Fried proposes what he calls the College of Entrepreneurial Leadership and Society (CELS) as a new model for undergraduate education that will give students more educational value for less money. His idea certainly caught my interest.

Fried begins by setting forth the three-fold “value proposition” of CELS:

• It will provide useful education for a productive and balanced life. No college can be ideal for all students; the target market for CELS would be those who are interested in professional success, but don’t want their education to be exclusively utilitarian – in other words, those who want an educational experience that’s somewhere in between a vocational school and the ivory tower.
• Much of the student’s learning will be outside of the traditional classroom. The kind of student sought wants to be actively involved in his education, so professors will ensure that they have meaningful out-of-class experiences.
• Provide students with the best value possible. Those who want a “no frills” college won’t be interested in CELS and neither will students who want the “fully loaded” version. For students in the mid-range target market, however, this model will provide high educational value at the lowest cost.

That brings us to the next crucial question – what will the curriculum consist of? This is where the high cost of most colleges and universities is rooted. If professors are allowed to teach just a few small classes that they’re particularly interested in, then labor costs will go through the roof. Fried knows that and envisions a curriculum that will serve the needs of the students rather than the desires of the professors. The curriculum at CELS, he writes, would provide students with appropriate technical skill for entry-level jobs along with foundational skills and knowledge for life outside work. Program offerings would include such fields as Communication Arts, Education, Engineering, Information Technology and Science & Technology. The courses taught would give students the skills they need, but would be more than just “job training” since students would also be exposed to the intellectual and social history of the profession and questions of ethical responsibility.

The CELS model would have a core curriculum comprising about half of the credits needed for graduation, covering the social sciences, humanities, and entrepreneurial leadership. The remaining courses would be divided evenly between major requirements and electives.

By sticking to its mission, a CELS-type college could, Fried maintains, “teach the entire package of eight programs with about one-fourth the number of courses that a top liberal arts college would use to provide a much narrower product line.” Knowing what we do about the proliferation of niche courses at many colleges and universities and the corresponding mushrooming of the faculty, that sounds entirely plausible. If a CELS school were begun and if its leadership could resist the almost inevitable pressure from faculty members to start adding pet courses for them to teach, it could undoubtedly deliver a solid education at a significantly lower cost than is now typical.

Well, it sounds nice in theory, but could it work? Fried has some impressive data to support his idea. The National Center for Academic Transformation has been studying course redesigns for several years and based on thirty instances at a wide variety of institutions, it found that costs were lowered by an average of 37 percent, while student learning increased. (The results are available here.) One of the fascinating conclusions drawn from those course redesign experiments is that small classes are usually neither educationally necessary nor beneficial; they simply drive up the cost tremendously.

CELS is a model for undergraduate education only; students wanting to do graduate studies would have to look elsewhere since graduate and professional programs add to costs while distracting the institution from its mission. Furthermore, faculty research would be kept to “modest levels” because it too raises costs and distracts from the mission.

Professor Fried believes that this model would work best for a fairly small student body ranging from 600 to 2,000 students. It could be a free-standing institution, or it could be established within an existing college or university. Fried suggests that CELS could be an attractive opportunity for a “social or for-profit entrepreneur interested in starting up a new independent college,” and that it might also work as a radical design change for a struggling school that wants to become more successful.

Higher education in the United States seems to be about where the communications industry was in 1980 – poised for dramatic change. Dissatisfaction with the status quo is widespread and ideas for improvement are in the wind. The CELS model might prove to be the higher education equivalent of the cell phone. If some innovator takes this idea and runs with it, the results will be very interesting.