Thursday, August 16, 2018
Friday Fragments, Sustainability Edition
Thanks to Melina Patterson for highlighting this one. It’s a bill for a semester at the University of Houston in 1975. The total is $152.50. Correcting for inflation, that would be slightly over $700 now.
At $700 a semester, most students could work their way through. But it’s juuuuuust a bit higher than that now.
In the year-to-year series of incremental changes, it’s easy to lose track of that sort of thing. Take a step or two back, though, and the changes are seismic.
Take that trend line and project it forward, say, twenty years. Assuming that real wage growth continues at its current pace, such as it is, there’s no earthly way to make that sustainable.
These two stories next to each other do a nice job of encapsulating the dilemmas of folks trying to make college budgets sustainable.
One is about a consultant urging colleges to pare down their programmatic offerings, in order to attain greater operating efficiencies. Each new program requires slicing the existing population thinner, and committing to running entire programs even as cohorts shrink with attrition. The other is about colleges adding programs right and left in hopes of generating enrollment.
Those of us in the trenches know this dilemma well. Growth requires taking risks, which involves suspending the focus on efficiency for a while. (New programs almost never pay for themselves in the first year or two.) That can be a hard sell as money gets tighter. But if you stagnate for too long, you won’t be able to cut your way out of decline.
Bryan Alexander does a nice job here of connecting the dots between OER and changes in commercial publisher behavior.
As regular readers know, I’m very much a fan of OER. Some people aren’t, whether because of concerns around sustainability, quality, or faddishness. What Alexander points out here, I think correctly, is that OER is helping to put pressure on commercial publishers, thereby helping both its fans and its detractors. Cengage Unlimited, for example, is pretty clearly a response to OER; if open alternatives had not caught on, I doubt that the subscription model would have emerged. Having to compete with “free” is forcing publishers to rethink a pricing model almost as out-of-control as our own.
OER isn’t the entire answer to college costs, heaven knows, but it may buy us some time to figure out more fundamental changes. And it will do so in an ethical and aboveboard way. To the extent that improved access to books improves student performance -- which it does -- colleges can do well financially by doing good morally. That doesn’t always happen. When we find opportunities like those, we should jump on them. If it buys us time to address the larger cost issues, even better.
Of course, the ultimate in unsustainability is childhood. This year, The Boy will be a senior in high school. He’ll be heading out in just over a year.
He’s fine with it. Heck, he’s excited about it.
I will be.
No, really, I will. I just...need a minute...