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Stop treating higher ed as spoiled rich kids
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Higher Education 101: Follow the money.
It’s a course you need to take to understand why college education costs keep escalating.
There are two major components. There is the education establishment that has no overriding need or desire to pursue innovations in how they do business to reduce expenses. Then there are the students who, for the most part, are pursuing a degree in order to make more money and those who bluntly have no idea where they are headed.
Toss in a third element — the federal government — that is more than willing to keep guaranteeing bigger and bigger loans and you have an expensive elixir.
Anyone want to take a guess why college costs keep going significantly faster than the rate of inflation?
The fact we keep throwing money at the problem coupled with the belief that is drummed into every student’s head is that the better the degree the bigger the future earnings and you have the perfect conditions for educators to act like Wall Street robber barons that squeeze as much money as possible out of both the clients (students) and the business (college).
That is why studies like the one conducted in Wisconsin shows the state college system in that state has had a significant increase per student expenditure during the Great Recession while the actual face time students had with instructors dropped. The study showed that the education bureaucracy ballooned significantly creating deans for just about anything conceivable.
Higher education is the only major industry besides the federal government that hasn’t adjusted to the new economic realities of the past seven years. Instead of finding ways to streamline the delivery of finished products — in the case of colleges an educated student with a degree — colleges just continued to do the same old, same old while piling up the costs.
The private sector and government at lower levels have had to go through consolidation of positions, staffing cutbacks, pay freezes, furloughs, and even reductions in compensation while finding ways to stay competitive and snag customers who demand more and more for less and less.
It’s been almost the exact opposite — except for pay freezes — for most colleges.
While other sectors have reduced upper management and even mid-management, the colleges have expanded. The general rule is to deliver the best product in the most efficient way you need to put your resources to work in a manner that benefits customers the most. That way you get their business.
But with clients paying whatever it takes and entities willing to loan them the money, there is no slowing down of cash flowing into higher education despite the Great Recession.
That is why an out-of-the-box solution is needed.
Oregon is exploring one possible solution.
Lawmakers are looking at a plan that would allow students to attend college for free. And then, when they start working, they pay 3 percent of their income for 24 years after they graduate to pay for their education. If they don’t complete college, a formula is put in place that still requires them to pay from future income but at a lower percentage.
It seems reasonable since studies show that the more education even if it is just a year or two of college improves the bottom line in terms of lifetime earnings.
The money paid back would then be used to finance the education of future students.
The so-called “Pay It Forward” plan is designed to address ever growing student debt. But since it doesn’t address what is driving the growing cost of education it is only half the answer.
There needs to be ways to streamline degree programs, make more use of technology to teach, or reshape the system to reduce top heavy expenses.
When it comes to public higher education, lawmakers need to pass edicts that essentially give state college systems a set amount of time to reduce administrative overhead by at least 50 percent, reduce student to instructor ratios, and find ways to shorten the time it takes to obtain a degree. Those three things should improve the student experience and reduce costs.
Lawmakers do not need to provide specifics. They need to issue marching orders and leave the details to those with education expertise. But in doing so, they have to tighten up the purse strings to force innovative thinking.
In a way, colleges are akin to spoiled rich kids. They have no initiative to do things differently or no need to watch what they spend.
Until that is changed, we shouldn’t be surprised that college costs keep going up and up at a pace that significantly outstrips the rate of inflation.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 249-3519.