Wednesday, January 23, 2013

But Wait! There’s More!

My Dad used to teach courses on advertising, which was how he justified his weird attention to commercials.  He used to pick up on odd turns of phrase from locally produced ads -- anyone who lived in Rochester circa 1980 will remember those awful/great Hill T.V. ads, with Dick and Linda Hill -- or anything by Ronco.  Three easy payments!  But wait, there’s more!  Now how much would you pay?  If you act now...

He may have been ahead of his time.

The kind of payment gimmicks that used to be restricted to the appliance or pocket fisherman biz are finding their way into higher education.  

Last week, Union College (KY) announced that it would allow students to take their last semester for free if they got good grades and engaged in campus life.  The idea was to offer a tangible reward for sticking around and doing well.

This week, Cleveland State, Florida International, Lamar and Utah State Universities and the Universities of Arkansas, Cincinnati, Texas at Arlington and West Florida agreed to offer a first course free in the MOOC format, as a way of enticing students to stick around after the freebie is done.  

(If memory serves, a certain blogger suggested a deposit refundable upon graduation in these very pages back in 2010.  Just sayin’.)

Higher ed pricing is usually somewhere between obscure and opaque.  There’s a “sticker price,” sort of, that covers the basics.  (It’s usually called tuition.)  There are fees for various purposes -- lab courses, technology, high-cost programs, student life, or even, in the case of Worcester State, walking (!).  For residential colleges, add room and board.  Then start subtracting.  “High tuition/high aid” colleges live and die by the “discount rate,” or the amount that they’re willing to discount (“presidential scholarship”) the sticker price for various students.  Financial aid in various forms, scholarships of all shapes and sizes, and both need- and merit- based programs affect how much a student actually has to pony up.  

The advantage of the complexity of higher ed pricing is that it supports the kind of institution-based redistribution that allows students from economically modest backgrounds to get far more than they could ever pay for.  There’s real virtue in that.  It also tends to tamp down competition on price, directing competition instead towards perceived quality and various amenities.  While there’s plenty of noise in the ways people perceive quality, there’s a valid argument to the effect that maintaining some sort of meaningful standards for higher education is a real public good.  

But when complexity starts to become opacity, especially in the face of faster-than-inflation increases over time, some potential students probably get discouraged.  And that’s where the radical simplicity of the “free semester as a senior” model can cut through the noise.  

Admittedly, it’s a little jarring to hear “the first one is free” coming from people who sell intellectual growth rather than, say, crystal meth.  But there’s no principled reason that the “loss leader” model couldn’t work for colleges too.

My fear is that we’re inadvertently replaying the old airline model from the 1970’s.  When fares were regulated, airlines competed on amenities.  When price competition became viable, a sort of race to the bottom ensued; now airlines compete almost entirely on price (and hidden fees), and they pass the savings on to you by making flying as unpleasant as humanly possible.  Any pretense of luxury is long gone; now you’re lucky to get a bag of peanuts, and legroom for anyone over about five foot ten is a distant dream.

That’s not entirely bad, except for the legroom.  Flights are usually pretty brief, in the grand scheme of things, and some brief unpleasantness may be a fair trade for a lower price.  If you get from point A to point B safely and affordably, the flight has done what it set out to do; you can accept the take-off-your-shoes ritual as a cost of doing business.

But college isn’t like that, and shouldn’t be.  Real education takes time and investment.  I don’t think our current methods are the only possible methods, heaven knows, but I’d hate to see us race to the bottom.  

If we want to avoid falling into the same category as the inside-the-egg-scrambler, we need as a sector to give some conscious and deliberate thought to how to blend quality and economic sustainability.  That will probably require some pretty significant changes.  We can’t rely on the old Pan Am model forever.  The world is changing whether we give it permission or not.  Colleges starting to adopt the marketing tactics of cheesy television commercials may be understandable and even sort of refreshing, but it probably doesn’t lead anywhere we want to go.  

If we don’t do our homework in a serious way, that’s where we’re heading.  Now how much would you pay?