Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Different Kind of College Experience

Dan Edelstein, a French professor at Stanford, compares a Stanford education to what he received in Switzerland:
I cannot help contrasting this situation with my own experience as a student, at a public university in Switzerland. I paid the equivalent of $35 a semester in tuition; halfway through my studies, the price was raised, after much protest, to $300. It was a fairly bare-bones experience: our professors were world class, but there was zero support for students. We had no advisers, no writing center, no extracurricular activities, no dorm – we didn’t even have a graduation ceremony. Because the cost was so low, however, we had remarkable freedom – freedom to take as many seminars as we wanted, to space out our exams, to try out new subjects, and more generally, to take as long as we wanted. I spent six years as an undergraduate, the norm at the time (although you could technically graduate in four).
I have been wondering why all colleges seem to be caught up in the race to draw students with more and better facilities and programs. Why don't some colleges try offering a Swiss-style alternative, with a bare-bones experience at a lower price? Obviously in the US that price would be a lot higher than $300 a semester, but I read that 70% of the cost of college is for things other than instruction. It ought to be possible, it seems to me, to offer academic instruction at a college level for half the usual tuition. Most students might choose a place that offers a richer experience anyway, but surely some would appreciate quality teaching at a lower price.


tommydom said...

So, I wonder if such a model would still work in a science oriented program - one where lab and equipment in the lab truly enhance the learning experience. I also have to think that attracting qualified talent to teach should be a little more than room and board for the professor [BTW, we don't pay our teachers, police, fire, and healthcare workers enough money.] If we use the number of 70% as the non-education element of the tuition, a year at University of Virginia 2010-2011 will mean that $3,250 per student, per year is the expected monetary base. At 20,895 students, that will generate $67,925,466 per year. So, with a little very simple modeling I compute that at a class size of 35 students each, with teachers teaching 3 different classes each semester, and a compensation package of $125,000, this will cost $24,875,000. Real estate costs could run about the same per year (lots of assumptions, like the number of classrooms available to handle the 120 classes per day and 8 square feet per student in the classroom, and commercial real estate costs of $156, annually, and a 15% premium to cover utilities…). So this consumes about $49 million of the $68 million collected, leaving $19 million per year for “everything else.” Is that enough? What about research? What about equipment? An interesting model, for sure.

The ubiquity of low cost high grade post-secondary education is something I would love to be involved with (as a student or an economically responsible party to that education experience). University of Bensozia?

John said...

Research is an issue; the model I am proposing would not include much money for that. Faculty who want to do expensive research would have to seek funding on their own, perhaps by working in labs at bigger institutions or in private companies. (I know a chemist who spends his summers working for Dupont.) I don't think the bare bones model would work for everyone, I just wonder why someone isn't trying it.