How Much Does A College Education Cost? Most Colleges Don’t Know.
Since 1980, college costs have increased 169% but most colleges can’t tell you how much your education costs. How is this possible? Our society as a whole suffers as we wrangle with data buried and obscured in college expenditure reports.
Let’s start with one definition of education: delivering instruction.
A school’s cost of instruction is commonly misunderstood as the tuition itself, especially if it is a non-profit. However, tuition is merely a college’s price tag. Tuition is made up of dozens of expenses — including school sports, private eating establishments, and even objectionable student clubs — charged to all students, regardless of involvement.
If we break down tuition into its constituent parts, no more than fifty percent of tuition is spent on what schools define as instruction, according to college expenditure reports. Many colleges spend a far smaller percentage of tuition on what they define as instruction. While these numbers are troubling in and of themselves, what these reports obscure is even more troubling.
A college’s definition of instruction is not composed of the provision of teaching services nearly as much as it is to the competitive game of research and publications. Universities readily admit that the costs of educating students are driven mainly by competition for the best faculty and their salaries. However, these professors are not the best teachers, they are considered the best because of their research. Therefore, their salaries are tied to their research.
By extension, a school’s cost of instruction is far more reflective of the costs of research and prestige than actually providing instruction to students. The result is that colleges don’t know the cost of your instruction, and therefore by definition, they don’t know the cost of providing your education.
Now let’s move to the other definition of education, learning. We can begin by analyzing just the most basic possible definition of learning: enlightenment, understanding of knowledge, and acquisition of skill. But even with this lowly definition, it turns out that most colleges don’t know whether a student has learned anything from their classes, so they couldn’t possibly tell you the cost of learning.
Former Harvard President Derek Bok, in an event for higher education royalty, stated that most faculties don’t know how much their students are learning or if they are learning at all. So many professors are simply not interested in measuring students’ learning.
Perhaps professors are not too concerned with adding value or providing a return on investment to the students because their salaries are impacted far more by their research and publications than the quality of their teaching. Simply put, incentives are not well-aligned for professors and students.
Could we measure learning by grades? Grades don’t establish a student’s baseline knowledge or understanding and therefore we cannot measure the value-add of a class. (More importantly, grades are a much better indicator of temporary memorization rather than deep understanding. The vast majority of content learned in college is forgotten shortly thereafter.) Therefore by definition, neither colleges nor professors can provide any evidence-based answer for the cost of learning.
However, there is a way to evaluate learning of a certain set of skills from the university experience as a whole. An independent exam called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) measures critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communications. These are topics that every university claims to teach and are greatly needed in college and in the workforce.
Decades of CLA testing has shown that one third of American undergraduates do not show any improvement in these skills, based on testing students at ages 17 and 21, when four years of life should be enough to show at least minor improvement. For those who do show some improvement, the learning is minimal for a large swath of students.
We can postulate as to why four years of living, in addition to four years of college classes, don’t result in advancement in these arguably most critical types of learning. Regardless, the bottom line remains that with respect to all of the content delivered in college classes, colleges do not know the cost of actually making learning happen because they don’t measure whether learning occurred or how much.
America is at the point where traditional colleges must change to improve public opinion in order to cement their role in America’s future. Accurately quantifying the cost of education is a good place to start.