Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy and Higher Ed: The Cost Accountibility Movement

by Shirlee

The Occupy Wall Street movement has drawn attention to many problems that have been with us for a long time, but without achieving headline status until now. Wealth inequality and its effect on democracy, for example. The distribution of profits in the financial sector, pointing to the question about what is contributed to our collective well-being to justify such profits. And the increasing likelihood that the next generation of adults will not be able to achieve the same level of prosperity and security as their parents....

In connection with that last concern, Occupiers have been drawing attention to the major shift in the funding sources for higher ed over the past three decades -- from grants and scholarships for students, supplementing relatively generous public funding of the institutions themselves to increasing reliance on student debt. The accumulation of student debt is being likened to indentured servitude, even a kind of debt-slavery, by Occupiers. Average debt for students achieving a bachelor's degree is cited as between $23,000 and $25,000.-- and this at a time when unemployment is running high.

So why does higher education cost so much? Where does the money go? These are questions that belong in the Cost Accountability wing of the Accountability Movement. PCC's Learning Assessment Council exists in response to the accountability movement, and the effort to respond to the spiraling costs of Higher Ed has been part of our program from the start. As we here at PCC are busily assessing student learning outcomes, with an eye to making sure our students are learning what we promise to be teaching them, the plan is to locate and share around the instructional practices that are most effective. In this way we will be able to serve more students, more effectively, with less cost per student -- the 3-sided demand on Community Colleges set down by the Obama Administration. The hope is for the quality of our instruction to go up (as measured by achievement of learning outcomes) even as the cost of providing that quality goes down. This is our indirect response to the problem of student debt. Is it enough?

Inside Higher Ed has a piece on the Occupiers' anger about college debt. And in response to student agitation about college loan debt, the Obama Administration has posted a description of its plans. See: https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/

But if you are just plain interested in why Higher Ed costs so much these days, here is the source I recommend:
Delta Cost Project.

Here is a juicy tidbit from page 17:
Among public institutions, spending per student for instruction declined between 2002 and 2005, most dramatically in public community colleges. When state funds increased in 2006, instructional spending increased as well, but not enough to make up for losses in prior years.

Delta Cost Project has charts and graphs comparing costs and funding sources of community colleges to other sectors of Higher Ed. Student debt is increasing partly due to increased costs of education, but the larger factor is what they call "cost shifting" -- shifting from taxpayer funding to individual funding. The increased costs attributable to instructional versus non-instructional institutional costs are also charted. I think it is interesting reading.

We work all day, long and hard, on behalf of our students. It is important to me that we are not just saddling them with debt that will decrease the quality of their future lives -- instead of increasing the quality through all those intangibles associated with being an "educated person." For example, I try to imagine my life without my college experiences, and I cannot do it. College set me on my life's path, and made me into the person I think of as myself. But I graduated with no debt at all. I paid my way by working, with the help of grants and scholarships. That is near impossible these days... Would I be so pleased with my education if it had taken me 30 years to pay it off?

I fear that higher ed looks different with a monthly debt payment that appears to go on forever, and with no good job prospect in sight. I think as educators, we need to know where the money goes -- the money that is at least in part being spent today on our paychecks, but will be paid back by our students long into their futures. And we need to know that it is not just knowledge and skill we are providing our students.... it is years of a repayment plan, too.


  1. I think that the colleges and universities bear a huge responsibility when some unfortunate student ends up $80K in debt for a combined major in Useless Studies and Worthless Studies, and faces a lifetime of paying it off on the salary of a waiter or taxi driver. I think that those organizations should be hit with having to pay off around 75% of the debt that students ran up paying for degrees with no possible return on investment.

  2. Does it really make sense to reduce the transformative power of an education into a "return on investment"? If one's life has been changed - one's networks, interests, one's culture - how is the "return on investment" calculated?