Recent articles by Jeff Selingo in the Washington Post and Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed have address the idea of “unbundling” college credits. Selingo contends in his piece that two of the reasons why students pay so much for college is that they face the same price if taking 12 or 15 credits per semester (true at many colleges) and that colleges don’t always accept transfer credits in an effort to generate revenue (probably true, but difficult to prove). Reed notes an important distinction regarding transfer credits—although students may get credit for a community college course at a four-year institution, the credit might be granted as an elective that still requires the student to take the course over again.

Both Selingo and Reed refer to the push to allow consumers to unbundle their cable packages as a potential example of what to do (or not to do) in higher education. Currently, consumers have to choose a bundle of channels in order to get the particular channel or two they are the most interested in actually watching. A recent report estimated that cable companies paid an average of $6.04 per month to carry ESPN—and this gets passed along to consumers regardless of whether they actually want to watch the channel. Verizon has recently allowed subscribers to choose what types of channels they want to pay for, and Disney (the owner of ESPN) promptly sued to maintain the bundle. Disney’s fear is that maybe only half of the subscribers would pay $6 per month for ESPN, meaning that the price would have to double in order to match the previous revenue—at which point more customers would likely opt out.

Higher education offers similar examples of bundling that would quite possibly be brought down if students had the choice to select their preferred options. At many colleges, amenities such as recreation centers and intercollegiate athletics programs are funded through mandatory student fees. For example, the typical Big Ten Conference university charges students about $150 per semester in fees to fund recreational activities, regardless of whether a student actually chooses to use any facilities. While students often vote to approve the initial imposition of the fee, students who enroll in later years still have to pay the fee even if they would not have voted for it in the first place.

Fees for supporting intercollegiate athletics can be over $1,000 per year at some colleges, particularly at institutions without large donor bases or other revenue sources. An example is Longwood University in Virginia, which charges $239 per credit hour in tuition alongside over $63 per credit in athletics fees. This means that Longwood students taking 120 credits would be paying about $7,500 to subsidize athletics during their time on campus, something which many students might opt out of it they had a chance.

Higher education could be unbundled in other ways, including removing any requirements that students live on campus or purchase a meal plan, ending provisions requiring students to complete a certain number of credits in residency, or even potentially through the encouragement of open courseware that does not require an expensive subscription through the college. But any such efforts to unbundle will take away important revenue sources, so expect colleges to compensate in any way that they can. There is value in some of the bundling requirements, to be sure—for example, campus mental health services may not be offered if students had to opt into paying for the ability to access services. But it is worth having a conversation about what should be bundled and what should be provided on an a la carte basis.

[Cross-posted at Kelchen on Education]

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Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is data manager of the Washington Monthly college guide.