The Forum | Costs

Costly Chaos in the Curriculum

January 29, 2016 by Christine Ravold

The Committee for Economic Development has provided one of the grimmest statistics in higher education, where there is already plenty of bad news. Between 1981 and 2011, the “sticker price” of tuition and fees rose five times faster than overall inflation. Cost is choking off access to higher education, and the $1.3 trillion in student loan debt shows the other aspect of the dysfunction of college finance.

We can, and should, point fingers at runaway administrative budgets, outsized presidential salaries, lazy rivers, climbing walls, and athletics, but no one talks about curricula. Conventional wisdom says there is nothing to cut from college curricula. The Costs of Chaos in the Curriculum, a new report by Elizabeth D. Capaldi Phillips and Michael B. Poliakoff and published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, reveals how the vast array of course choices given to students at many institutions causes both exploding costs and poor academic outcomes.

First, there is the issue of academic quality: Capaldi Phillips and Poliakoff found in one sample school that there were 3,075 possible courses to fulfill seven different broad “distribution” requirements. Is every single one of those courses necessary or even helpful? This cornucopia of classes is actually harming students. With so many choices, it is more likely that students will not take foundational classes in the seven core areas ACTA identifies to be integral to a liberal education: Composition, Literature, Intermediate Foreign Language, U.S. Government or History, Economics, Mathematics, and Natural or Physical Science. A bloated undergraduate curriculum is particularly detrimental to the success of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who often have less guidance available to them for selecting a coherent and productive set of courses. Large curricula are correlated with non-completion of a degree or extended time to earn a degree.

The proliferation of general education courses comes from perverse incentives at the departmental level. Departments boost enrollment (and their budgets) by having as many courses as possible that meet distribution requirements. The vague nomenclature of distribution requirements such as “American pluralism,” “humanities,” and “social and behavioral science,” makes it easy to compromise the curriculum.

Ever-expanding course catalogs also contain another source of needless overhead: free electives. These classes count for neither general education nor major requirements but are another way that departments can expand their offerings. Classes on zombies, children’s literature, and television studies are fun for dinner conversations, but they crowd course catalogs and raise tuition fees.

The savings can be very significant. By restricting general education choices to classes that also function as part of programs for students who major in the disciplines or which are part of coherent minor programs, the schools Poliakoff and Capaldi Phillips examine could save as much as 10% of educational costs. Eliminating superfluous electives could potentially save another 9% of the instructional budget.

Quality is the bottom line. Undergraduate education would be more coherent, and employers could count on graduates with a solid foundation in the verbal, quantitative, civic, and scientific skills and knowledge that they need.

In response to outrage over spiraling college tuition, colleges have claimed that disinvestment at the state and federal levels is responsible for tuition hikes. But in reality, colleges have done nothing to curb costs, relying instead on taxpayer money in the form of government funding or federally subsidized loans. Before they are granted more money from public coffers, they should have to prove that they are improving learning and limiting frivolous spending. Limiting colleges’ access to funds seems harsh, but by putting university budgets to the flame, some of the fat could be trimmed off the bottom line and rendered out of the curriculum.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels has observed that trimming college costs is not easy and not for the faint-hearted: “You’re not going to find many places where you just take a cleaver and hack off a big piece of fat.” But it is imperative, and Daniels’ initiative to create a three-year degree is further evidence that reforming the curriculum is a key component of the cost-effectiveness.

According to data reported by the OECD, we have not done well for our money. The United States already spends more money per student on higher education than any country in the world, but it lags far behind other countries in actual learning gains. As a result, even though there are more people going to college than ever before, there is a shortage of qualified employees in many fields. The effect on our economy is self-evident. As if these threats to economic growth were not enough, because of student loan debt, people are not starting small businesses and are putting off buying their first home.

Calling for free tuition or debt-free college is not the answer. An efficient degree, built on a foundation of courses that provide what students need for success in career, community, and citizenship, is the bold step American higher education needs to take.

(This blog originally appeared on Economics21’s Commentary on January 7, 2016.)


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