Thursday, April 02, 2009


Canadian Cold Front

An alert reader referred me to this story in the Toronto Star.

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.

"Demographic upscaling" is already happening during the current admission season. See the NYT article yesterday on colleges making more room for "full-pays."
DD, the Canadian educational system is significantly different from ours in outlook. We're r-strategy; they're K-strategy*.

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.
It has been happening in various forms for years. Many "state" schools are setting aside more and more slots for out of state students, they pay a higher tuition.

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.
Just to be clear, they're not eliminating part-time study - they're just saying that if you want to take more than half of a full load (i.e. three or more three-hour-a-week courses per term), then you are considered to be full time, and will pay full time tuition based on a 5-course load.

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.
Dictyranger: I'm not sure I agree so much with your comment, although there are parts that sound right to me. I'm at the University of Waterloo.

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".
Oh, interesting. That doesn't sound like a dump-the-part-timers move nearly as much....more like an effort to make the income and student flows more predictable.

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?
As frequent readers of my comments probably know, I'm an economist. And, speaking as an economist, the revenue-maximizing thing to do is to charge a higher (per-credit) tuition to full-time students.

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.
As a faculty member at a smaller Ontario university, we're watching UofT carefully. The strategy to demand full-fee tuition from students dropping down to four or three courses/term (conversely, not charging more for students who take six courses/term) is interesting. It will eliminate a lot of paperwork generated by students who enroll for five but then drop by the drop/add down to four or three. No more tuition refunds to pay out!
Am I missing something here? This feels like a, "Dog Bites Man" story to me. Tons of U.S. Colleges charge a single tuition, regardless of credit load. If the U of Toronto does so, they are merely expressing a predilection for full-time students. That makes a lot of financial sense when economic times are hard. As the article notes, part-time students taking less than 50% of a FT load do not pay full freight. So, all they are saying is that if you want to come here and take more than half a load, we want you to take a full load. This is big news?

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.
Dean Dad, go hit up those social workers for contributions!

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!!
From a students perspective: I attended a small private liberal arts college (not a SLAC, but a private school none the less) that had flat rate tuition. It worked to my benefit because I worked it for all it was worth, taking 8 classes a semester and auditing a ninth when there was something interesting offered. It was great because I was able to finish in three years instead of four- the cost savings was huge (Even with an apprenticeship that covered 1/2 tuition and work study I owed 20,000 a year!) and I actually got a chance to dip into everything I was interested in while still finishing my major and a minor.

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 husband is going back to school this fall, to a public institution. We have to make a decision as to whether we could take the cut in income if he went FT instead of PT. It was hardly a choice once we looked at 1) the difference in financial aid (namely loans) and 2) the difference in cost. Despite needing his income, it is more cost effective for him to go FT, and at least we could get the aid we need. It's a flawed system--not wanting to help those who help themselves get ahead. There's simply not enough support for non-traditionals, at any four year school.
Unfortunately, this is not something new. It probably drew more attention now because of the U of T name.

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.
Dictyranger: Sorry for the confusion about graduate students. Most students get RAships as in the US. But there are more scholarships per capita: we have 2200 scholarships from NSERC, our natural science and engineering research council. That's a bit unfair, because one would usually get an award for master's level and for PhD level, so let's say that NSERC gives out about 1000 awards to students. I think NSF also gives out 900 awards to students, and Canada has 10x fewer people.

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.
There is a very good point buried late in the comments:


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.
For plam: OK, sounds like we're closer in outlook than I thought. My perception was that Canada's pretty good at giving lots of support to the people in the system, which jives with the NSERC grant levels. I'd say the majority of American grad students survive on TAships, which pay the genteel-poverty-level salaries that most RAs do. (The difference, of course, is that you have 20 fewer hours a week to do your research in.)

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.
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