Cutting College Costs

There was a recent article in the Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet detailing the enormous economic costs of this pandemic on public colleges.  Here are some thoughts on steps to ameliorate the damage.

*Here, in NJ, we have a superintendents’ pay cap in the public schools.   Though I think this was carried out in a draconian fashion, with the cap lower than many principals’ existing salaries, I think there is some merit, though, to this on the college level.  Public college president’s pay should be capped at $350,000 a year and no one at the college should make a dime more.  Right now, with incentives, the president of Rutgers, my state university, can earn $1.2 million a year.  The football coach, $5 million, with over $7 million for his coaching staff, use of a private jet or first-class travel, a car, country club membership, a clothing allowance, and on and on.  This is, frankly, obscene.  Certainly, this is not restricted to football.  The women’s basketball coach is scheduled to earn almost $1 million per year. 

*There should be no recruiting budgets for Division III public colleges.  Colleges should play with the students they have. 

*Admissions recruiting should be vastly cut back. Our students and counselors appreciate all the college admissions staff that visit our high school.  But they are not necessary and, in my opinion, not very effective.  There should be sufficient staff to staff regional college fairs and assess applications.  Period.  The budget for printed materials, enrollment management, and other admissions costs should be similarly curtailed.

*There has been an arms race, not only between public colleges but also with private colleges,  to compete with the best facilities and services for students.  Every college tour I go on is the same, with brand new buildings going up everywhere, the brand new, state-of-the-art science labs (we can’t refurbish the existing ones?), brand new recreational athletic facilities, new apartment-style dorms, food courts as dining options, etc.  We have to stop using public funds to pay to compete with private colleges for boutique student experiences.

*I am no fan politically of Purdue’s President Mitch Daniels, but I do have to give him credit for freezing his school’s tuition for the 9th consecutive year.  Purdue’s tuition and fees for in-state students are under $10,000; Rutgers?  Over $15,000.  Public colleges should compete with private colleges on cost, not boutique facilities, and athletics.

*The federal government must pass an Affordable Education Act at once.  It would treat public colleges like public health.  Every person would pay for public college based on their income and assets (including housing equity and retirement accounts) with the federal government making up the difference.  This would allow more students to attend college whose family circumstances have been disrupted.  This could divert the expense for our state’s $300 million need-based TAG grants to the federal government.

*Every public college in the state should not offer every possible major.  There should be a public college consortium in each state to distribute under-enrolled majors to particular colleges.  This could eliminate total departments at some colleges, which includes not only the professor’s salaries but all the support staff as well.  

*There should be thorough auditing of how to cut costs in a way that preserves the educational experience for students.  There should be a minimum class load for every full-time teacher.  Classes with very low enrollment should be eliminated or at least only offered in alternate years.  My son really appreciated taking upper-level Turkish language courses of 3 or 4 students, but I don’t know how sustainable this can be.

*End merit scholarships for students without need.  This is a tough one for me, for my son went to Rutgers for free as a Presidential Scholar.  But this is a luxury we can no longer afford.

We have experienced over 3 decades of college costs going up at twice the rate of inflation and virtually unrestrained spending, on the belief that this is the only route to compete for students.  Public colleges should compete on cost and the quality of the education delivered and have services and facilities that meet student needs, not what they perceive students want. 

I was a school administrator in 2008 when the recession hit and saw first hand how random and unfocused cuts were.  To avoid firing teachers, teachers who left were not re-hired.  This led to some really pernicious effects, particularly when it affected departments with already high average student class loads.  I have suggested a similar plan for my town’s high school that cuts costs without sacrificing class size in the academic areas.

I was a bit horrified when my son, a high school junior in 2010, had a letter published in the local paper in support of the town voting down the school budget.  He wrote that he and the other students did not need all the brand new turf fields or computer labs being built- just old fashioned great teachers teaching in reasonably sized classes.  The more I think about it, in retrospect, the more I respect his wisdom.


Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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