Cutting Cost

With increasing rhetoric around the high cost of college comes the bizarre attempt to try and help out colleges to find ways to cut costs.

Back in December President Obama convened a meeting of college presidents to discuss strategies to reduce spending. Now the Atlantic runs an article called “5 Ways to Make College Much More Affordable for All Americans.” These individual cost cutting strategies, however, are probably the wrong way to go about really making college affordable.

According to the Atlantic article, by McKinsey staffers Adam Cota, Andre Dua, and Martha Laboissiere, the five magical strategies are:

Make sure students graduate, and graduate faster.

Try new ways of teaching

Recognize that learning happens outside the classroom. (Giving…. students credit for the knowledge they’ve earned outside of school.)

Slim down non-instructional costs.

Use financial aid as a carrot and stick for schools (funding… specific indicators of institutional performance (such as graduation rates and job placement)).

Um, sure. Those are possibilities. But what makes those five the best? Actually nothing.

Colleges could also make students share books, admit more students, have bigger classes, reduce the number of credits needed to graduate, increase alumni contributions, conduct more scientific research, induce the states where they’re located to provide more money for the institution, hire fewer full-time faculty, defer campus maintenance, cease campus building projects, make students maintain the campus themselves, and make employees contribute more to their health care plans. The list goes on and on.

In fact there’s no reason to think these McKinsey proposals are any better than any others.

This is because, as anyone who tries to spend less money, either personally or as an institution, knows, there are an almost infinite number of theoretical ways to do this. Whether or not the tactic is a good idea has to do with which cuts and their severity.

If the United States is really serious about reducing the cost of college, there’s no need to make general prescriptions for the whole country. What works for one institution surely won’t work for another. Focus on how much it costs and let that be the only measure that matters, from a policy perspective. Colleges have lots of ways to reduce costs. If they’re so inclined, they’ll figure it out.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer