9 Ways You’re Getting Less for Your Dollar at College
Life + Money

9 Ways You’re Getting Less for Your Dollar at College

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Since 1978, the tuition at U.S. universities has skyrocketed more than 900 percent, rising at twice the rate of inflation.  For most products and services, a price spike this extreme would depress sales, but in the case of American colleges, more students than ever before are paying the price to finance their educations by taking out five- and six-figure loans

Instead of receiving a higher-quality education for the inflated price, students are getting a lot less for their dollar.

For many years, the quality of education at public and private universities has been declining--not a good omen as highly qualified graduates from other countries vie for jobs in the global economy. Instead of insisting and more rigorous standards for students, U.S. colleges have started to look more like efficiently-run factories, pushing students through big lecture-based classes, pandering to students with courses on pop culture, and handing out degrees without much examination as to the knowledge or skills the student has gained upon graduation. 

Budget cuts are only exacerbating the problem. In the past few years, courses or programs have been eliminated, graduate student teachers have replaced more professors, and classrooms are packed to overcapacity. At the public University of California, where in-state tuition is roughly one-third the cost of the top private colleges, funds have been slashed by a double-digit percentage while tuition fees jumped. At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, students will feel the loss of $33.5 million in funding this year, marking what its chancellor called the school’s most fiscally challenging year since the economic downturn began.

As more universities are squeezed, the prevailing concern remains not what the school can do for its students, but instead what the school can do for itself – that means bringing in research dollars, trimming costs and raising tuition. “[College] just isn’t delivering what it should be delivering,” says Andrew Hacker, a professor at Queens College who co-wrote Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About It.

There’s an implicit contract between all parties, says Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein: kids don’t want to work hard because they’re kids, professors don’t want to work too hard because they have other demands on their time (like research), and administrators steer clear of encouraging more challenging curricula because it could cause a loss of student interest – and dropouts mean a drop in dollars, too.

Here are nine ways college students are getting less for their money:

1. Fewer Courses

When the number of faculty members is slashed, so is the availability of classes. Budget cuts have forced some schools to pare down even required courses , heightening competition to secure a spot in must-take classes and potentially threatening timely graduation. In some cases, schools have eliminated entire programs: SUNY Albany, forced by budget cuts to eliminate some of its less-popular programs,  has phased out French, Russian, and Italian; theater; and classics, which focuses on Greek and Roman civilizations.

2. A Less Demanding Environment

Want an easy A? Go to college. Professors worry that rigorous grading could come at the cost of student interest and enrollment. In a climate where colleges are increasingly run as business operations, the customer is always right, and students are calling the shots on grades. More and more, administrators are judging the success of the professor by using student evaluations, and sites like RateMyProfessors are causing teachers to inflate students’ grades despite questionable achievement.

3. Larger Class Sizes

Overflowing classrooms and overwhelmed professors are hallmarks of today’s budget-cut-ravaged public higher education system. In Iowa’s state university system , all three major schools have seen a decrease in smaller classes (those with 30 students or fewer) and an increase in classes with more than 30 students, which some officials there have pinned on budget cuts. Classes that once offered students a chance for discussion and meaningful interaction have morphed into stale lectures with little room for individualized attention or feedback. That’s what happens when schools offer the same number of seats, spread across fewer classes.

4. More Non-Professors Teaching

Colleges compensate for overloaded classrooms by drawing in grad student instructors and inventing new methods to lighten the burden on professors and schools’ payrolls. The University of Arizona has set up a math tutoring lab, staffed by students, that only costs the school two-thirds of a standard course because it cuts back on professor-led lectures. Enrolled students still pay standard tuition.

5. Sports Programs Eliminated

In the face of severe cuts to academic programming, many schools are under fire for subsidizing sports. So when school officials hack budgets, their reach increasingly extends onto the field. To save $4 million, the University of California – Berkeley last year eliminated four of its sports teams, including the popular baseball and men’s rugby teams.

6. Library Hours Cut

Budget cuts mean staff cuts, and library workers at several schools around the country are feeling the burn. At the University of California – Los Angeles, one library shifted to an appointment-only setup because of a layoff. At Stanford University, more drastic cuts have reduced library staff  by 58 positions and ushered in materials cutbacks.

7. Stalled Projects and Upgrades

Without funding, on-campus construction projects and planned improvements slow to a standstill. New facilities are a rarity when the funding stream dries up, and planned upgrades become just the opposite. At the University of California – Berkeley’s graduate school for education, Dean Judith Warren Little said faculty members no longer have office phones.

8. Shift Toward Online Courses

Tough fiscal times mean there’s less to go around for lecture hall upgrades to both stay current and accommodate growing classes. Plus, less time in the classroom with a professor is a significantly smaller financial burden on the institution. So there’s a trend toward more online courses. Another reason: Online courses typically mean an uptick in revenue.

9. Less Economic Diversity

When higher education funding is on the chopping block, financial aid is usually among the first to go. Defunded grant programs squeeze out incoming students who depend on financial assistance to attend. Less diversity means narrowed perspectives on campus for those able to finance their educations.