Thursday, April 02, 2009
Canadian Cold Front
Apparently, in response to loss of endowment income, the University of Toronto is considering moving to a prix fixe tuition plan. Every student would pay a flat tuition rate, regardless of the number of credits taken in a given semester. Students are calling it a left-handed tuition increase.
That would soooooo not work at a cc.
I honestly don't blame the students for being upset. Flat-rate pricing may or may not be reasonably okay for traditional-age, full-time students. My SLAC alma mater did that, but with a rigidly traditional student body, it didn't matter much. But at a public institution, where access is part of the point, effectively charging a higher tuition rate for part-time students strikes me as badly misguided.
Part-time students already take a hit of sorts, in that per-credit tuition typically increases annually, so someone who takes four years to finish a 'two-year' degree absorbs three tuition increases rather than one. That's annoying, but there's a certain logic to it. This policy would pretty much eliminate part-time students altogether, and would encourage everyone else to take overloads so they could get through faster. That would lead to a very short-term increase in revenue, followed by a long-term decline, as students either drop out at higher rates (due to burnout) or graduate faster.
If part-time students leave, and full-time students take free overloads, then the university will actually have less revenue supporting the same amount of teaching. Even in purely mercenary terms, it's unlikely to work.
(And just imagine the howls of protest if students couldn't get into required classes, yet had to pay by the semester. "Sorry, kid, the senior seminar is full again. You'll have to try again next semester at full price." Yeesh.)
If the move is part of a deliberate strategy by the university to position itself as exclusively serving the upper tier of traditional students, it may make sense. But if not, it's singularly hamhanded, and exclusionary of the people who need services the most.
Demographic upscaling can be an effective survival move for an individual institution. Upper-income students use less financial aid, retain at higher rates, and are likelier to be plugged in to networks of potential donors. (All those social workers we've graduated over the years tend not to be huge donors, mysteriously enough...) If a particular university manages to gain cachet among the elite, it can leverage that into prosperity. NYU did that in the 1980's, for example. I'd argue that there's a low limit to the number of institutions that can do that, but if yours happens to pull it off, you get to live large for a while.
For cc's, though, even the attempt to do that would miss the point.
I'm happy to have elite students here, and glad that we have a rigorous and well-respected Honors program with an astonishingly good track record of transferring students to some places you've heard of. To the extent that the recession drives more high achievers here, if only for the cheap tuition, they may start to help us shed some of the cc stigma among the professional classes. That's great. And the teacher in me recognizes that sometimes it's refreshing to have a few high achievers in the class. I get that.
But those aren't the people who need public higher ed the most. If they didn't come here, they could go elsewhere. We're here for the people who have to work their way through school, for returning adults and kids who are the first generation to attend college at all. The whole point of taking public funding is serving the entire public, not just the ones who can afford to devote themselves to nothing but full-time study without economic strain.
I usually think of Canada as America with brains. But this idea is bad enough, and cold enough, that I think we're starting to rub off on them.
I have a number of Canadian colleagues, generally at the elite institutions (but University of Toronto is elite, so it fits). At every level, their system selects a subset of all applicants to be "winners", and puts significant resources into them. If you're not in the select group, this sucks, because you get frozen out. If you are, life is significantly easier than it is down here. (They still work hard, of course, but the desperate scramble for money and permanent positions is abated somewhat.) Both systems have their pluses and minuses, so I'm not criticizing either way.
If the University of Toronto is establishing a prix fixe tuition plan, my guess is that they've decided they want to focus elite resources on the students most likely to succeed in their system. That'd be the full-timers. They're already going to weed out most of that cohort, so why expand the pool further with the part-timers? Especially when the endowment just took a major hit and they have a lower carrying capacity?
I don't know much about the Canadian system's equivalent of cc's, so I don't know how they handle students who are not heading for the traditional elite professions or academia. I can ask some of my friends up there, though.
*For the non-biologists: roughly, r-strategy reproduction is cranking out tons of kids and letting the chips fall where they may. K-strategy reproduction involves few offspring with long maturation times and lots of parental involvement.
Also not every bright student does get a chance to go elsewhere. Personally, I left a 4 year university as I was simply not able to afford it even with student loans. Since my father worked instead of accepting welfare I was not eligible for needs based scholarships, and I did not belong to a minority group.
Eventually I finished a AAS in the Air Force. Career and the need to support a family have prevented me from pursuing a BS degree. It was more important to me that my children get the education I did not.
It is also amusing that most of my fellow engineers assume I have a masters or doctorate. I am even on the advisory boards for three local schools.
If you want to take less than three courses per term, you'll still be charged per course.
This is also only relevant for students in Arts & Science, who get to choose their courseload.
Toronto has two other universities that aren't planning on this type of fee structure, so there are other local alternatives.
Canada has a more homogeneous postsecondary scene than the US, I think; we don't really have SLACs, and schools are generally large-ish comprehensive schools. (Community college? In Quebec, we have junior colleges that everyone goes to---some for 2 years, pre-university, and some for 3 year technical programs. In Ontario there's a split between "universities" and "colleges" with not so much transfer.)
Personal experience: in my undergrad programme, honours math & CS at McGill, I didn't notice any selection except getting initially admitted to the university. After that, you just had to pass the classes.
For graduate work, there are more scholarships per capita than the US. There are now some super-premium scholarships, worth $35k/year, so your comment is true to some extent. This wasn't true when I started grad school, though.
We hire from all over the place for faculty, primarily from the US, so I'm not sure about any difference in a "desperate scramble for money and permanent positions".
If a student's on campus for three or more classes/semester, s/he's using one FT-equivalent of infrastructure (library space, janitorial services, registrar, etc.) However, at 3 classes a semester, it'll take 6 years for hir to finish. If this encourages students to get done faster and more predictably, I can see the appeal for the college.
Students who take one class a semester are a different animal: they probably come to campus, attend class, and leave. Minimal infrastructure impact, so no worries with a la carte pricing for them.
For plam: Thanks for the inside view. As for undergrad, I didn't mean that Canadian students are weeded out after admission...just that only a minority of the undergrads seem to be encouraged to go on for graduate work.
I'm curious: you refer to "scholarships" for grad students. Most American grad students in the sciences aren't funded by scholarships: the support is usually either from your mentor's grant, or is fee-for-service in exchange for teaching. Straight-up fellowships are rare, and almost never last through the entire graduate career. Is this different in Canada, or are we just using different terms for the same thing?
The rationale is simple: Charge a higher price to the group that is less likely to stop buying the product. In higher ed, that's almost certainly full-timers.
Another way part-timers get shafted, by the way, is with non-course-related fees (student activities fees, etc.). These are often flat (per person) fees, but the services almost certainly get heavier use from full-time students. I'd move those to a per-credit fee, as well.
Sorry DD, I feel like you set up a straw man here. Of course a fixed tuition doesn't work at a CC where many of our students are part-time, and that's why nobody even thinks of such a concept. The fact that U of Toronto is going that route (which is hardly unique) does not imply that any extension could/should be made to CCs or JCs.
My sister is a licensed highly experienced social worker and she pulls down low six figures annually.
My lifetime earnings would be much MUCH better if I was a social worker!!
I understand that this method would not work at a CC for all the reasons you mentioned, however the U of Toronto is not a CC. It is an apple to your orange DD.
My undergraduate uni, which is also in Ontario, switched to this system about 4 years ago. They had a fixed price for full-time students, but retained the per credit system for part-time students.
I don't know of anyone who survives on just TAships in Canada. We pay our TAs $3300/term (and consequently expect much less as well).
Not sure about people who were not encouraged to do graduate work.
WE ALREADY DO THIS AT CCs.
Financial aid rules force many students to take a full-time load of 12 hours rather than a part-time load even when they can only afford the time needed to pass 6 hours of classes. Some students plan on withdrawing from some of their classes because they are working 30 to 40 hours (or more) per week, but need the financial aid to help with child care and housing.
I will say that the NSERC:NSF ratio might not be the whole picture. NSF is a smaller fish in the US funding sea; in my field, biology, the NIH is a much bigger player. Significant funding also comes from DOD and DOE in other fields.