Federal Regulation to Reduce College Costs: The Big Lie

Who can argue with the desire to control tuition prices so that every worthy student can attend college? At my university, Trinity in Washington, like many other small private institutions, we work hard to keep our expenses under control, to keep our tuition price down and to support the neediest students -- about 70 percent of our students are eligible for Pell Grants, and we serve more residents of the District of Columbia than any other private college in the nation. Our faculty and staff are deeply devoted to educational success for students who come with many preparatory and life challenges. We don't shrink from accountability for results.

Our core values at Trinity are very closely aligned with the goals that President Obama articulated last week for all of higher education, and I certainly wish more colleges and universities could do what we do to make college affordable, accessible and effective for students who are often the first in their families to go to college.

So why does President Obama's plan for college affordability and accountability make me so uneasy?

President Obama's populist rhetoric bashing colleges on cost and accountability was surely a crowd-pleaser; and there's just enough truth in his criticism to make his plan seem, at the very least, important if not brilliant.

But the plan masks a big lie. Actually, several big lies.

The first big lie: federal regulation will reduce college costs.

Quite the opposite, the plan will drive costs even higher. If experience is any guide, the president's plan will unleash a new torrent of federal regulation of higher education, and every regulatory disgorgement from the U.S. Department of Education costs money. Big bucks. Each new regulatory foray winds up requiring more staff, more legal fees, more insurance, more training expenses, often more software and more equipment, to say nothing of the opportunity cost of more time spent away from the core enterprise of education.

Somebody has to pay for compliance expenses. Guess who? Students! Colleges and universities do not have some separate income stream to pay for compliance, it all comes out of the tuition dollar. More regulatory expenses? Higher tuition.

Can colleges reduce their expenses elsewhere to pay for more regulatory costs while also reducing tuition prices?

The president's rhetoric about college costs seems completely agnostic about how college budgets really work. Education is a labor-intensive enterprise, and about 60% of most collegiate budgets goes to salaries and benefits for faculty and staff. Aside from notorious headline-grabbing executive salaries in a few places places, which are hardly the majority or even a substantial group, for the most part faculty and staff in America's colleges and universities earn relatively modest salaries, sometimes not much more than public school teachers in K-12. Many colleges and universities try to keep salary costs down by using adjunct faculty, a practice coming under increasing fire for low wages and no benefits. Improving the condition of adjuncts is another expense that will increase tuition.

Aside from salaries, the next biggest expense is usually the campus and its infrastructure. With deferred maintenance always a worry, and regulatory demands for life safety or ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) improvements a continuous issue, it's hard to imagine retrenchment in the facilities budget.

And so on. We could cut back on security, which takes a large chunk of our budget at Trinity -- but then we'd probably run afoul of the Clery Campus Safety law. Every action we can consider to reduce costs is likely to evoke a reaction that will make the expense reduction difficult to achieve.

President Obama hints that higher education could control expenses by making use of MOOCs -- massive open online courses. MOOCs would certainly cut down on faculty salaries since we could basically fire most faculty since only a few would be needed to appear as the talking heads online. But then we'd add to the unemployment problem. MOOCs would also lead to the elimination of campuses entirely, cutting out that pesky facilities budget, but then we'd also have to fire the groundskeepers and housekeepers and engineers and security guards. I wonder how many jobs would be lost if we let the MOOC thing run its course? Just thinking...

Seriously, many colleges and universities, including mine, already use a great deal of technology to enhance the learning experience. We do some courses online, and many courses are offered as hybrids (using both online and in-classroom time). But the creative use of technology is unlikely to cut down on the expense of education -- in fact, technology-rich courses are often more expensive to produce.

Meanwhile, very few students can learn very well absent "live" instruction. Our experience shows that the most at-risk students -- and Pell Grant students often come with many risk factors -- need the most personalized attention, often even with tutors. The assumption that all learning can be reduced to sitting in front of a screen listening to a lecture defies several millennia of experience with true higher learning.

The second big lie: more data will lead student consumers to make wiser choices.

I'm starting my 25th year as a college president, and I can vouch for the fact that in almost every single one of those years there's been a major federal initiative to make more data available in more compelling ways to college-bound students and their parents. I remember standing alongside Secretary of Education Richard Riley when he announced the "College Is Possible" initiative complete with a lovely new website. Websites were new then, and it seemed like the best possible way to provide data easily to get students to make smart choices.

Guess what? Students still choose colleges based on where their friends go to school. Or where the frat parties are rumored to be spectacular. Or where the football culture is awesome. Or where mom and dad went to school.

BIG DATA about everything from tuition prices to graduation rates (whatever that really means, a topic for another day) to major programs and more is readily available on numerous websites, various rating and ranking publications, and has been readily accessible for years in Admissions literature and campus visits.

"Datapalooza" as President Obama calls it will not make consumers more rational when it comes to choosing a college. The Tyranny of Data will most certainly drive up college costs as we have to hire even more people to work on the number crunching the new plan will require. But whether all of that data has any real meaning for students is, at best, speculative.

The third big lie: more federal involvement with higher education will make higher education better.

President Obama's plan is shockingly devoid of any sense of respect for, even understanding of, the nature of teaching and learning at the collegiate level, the careful cultivation of the life of the mind through a remarkable diversity of academic programs, the advancement of intellect beyond rote lower learning models, the inculcation in the student of the ability to think independently, to engage in deeply critical analysis, to pursue innovative research, to discover new knowledge, to create new tools for human advancement. The worth of higher education cannot be reduced to the average salaries of recent graduates.

If all of higher education -- really a vast collection of many industries loosely grouped together in the term "higher education" -- can be reduced to a few data points crunched and spewed forth from the Datapalooza machine, then we have truly lost one of the greatest of all American assets, our intellectual capital housed in the nation's colleges and universities.

Higher education certainly must be accountable for the considerable federal investment in student financial aid. Yes, we can do better. Colleges and Universities surely cannot shrink from the expectation that we will be cost-effective while sustaining high quality academic experiences for our students. In fact, many of us are doing just that every single day.

But the broad-brush criticisms that President Obama leveled against the entire sector are more likely to harm precisely the smaller, more innovative places that are trying hard to do the right thing. Our margins are slender. Many of us, like Trinity, are actually making the dream of college affordable and accessible for marginalized populations, often at great risk to our own comforts and economic security. Fulfilling the demand for broad access to higher education is a risky business that requires nerves of steel and a willingness to sacrifice frills. But you don't hear about us in the president's rhetoric, because we are not big enough or important enough to gain his attention, even though Trinity and universities like us have elements of the models that could offer some solutions.

We smaller institutions with distinctive missions are at grave risk that the new federal rating system will pulverize us like minnows in a blender that will penalize the differences that make us very good at what we do in favor of forcing larger, more homogenous institutions into one federally-mandated size for all of higher education.

If experience is any guide, more federal intrusion into higher education will not serve the public well. I give you No Child Left Behind. Case closed.