Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Cost of Higher Education Revisited

Last year I wrote a blog post about the absurd costs of higher education(The Cost of higher Education, February 3, 2012, to be exact). That blog post was triggered by a begging letter from my medical school Alma Mater, the University of Utah. Guess what? That's right. I got another begging letter the end of May. In this letter they say that resident tuition for the fall of 2013 will be a cool $32, 934, up from the $29, 663 in 2012. That's a jump of about 11%. Non-resident tuition is going up from $55, 318 to $61,500; that's about a 10% increase. Oh, by the way, wouldn't I like to contribute?

Not to be outdone, beginning this fall undergraduate tuition at the University of Arizona is going up from about $9200 per year to $10, 905.70. That's only an 18% increase.

Student loan debt is now somewhere between 900 billion and one(1) trillion dollars, depending on who you read. That's right—a TRILLION dollars. It seems the universities will continue to jack up tuition, etc as long as the lending community, including the feds, is willing to foot the bill. Meanwhile the student takes it in the shorts. It seems to me that this can't go on forever.

Universities originally grew up around libraries because libraries held the accumulated information necessary for scholarship and learning. Professors gravitated to those places and voila! Universities were born. Universities have grown now to where some of them are virtual cities or even city-states. Witness Arizona State University, with something over 60,000 students, housing, food services, transportation and police force. Is this really necessary in this day and age?

The advent of the computer, the internet, Skype and related communications technology brings into  question of the necessity of universities as a geographic location for learning. The cost of information has dropped drastically, even as the cost of higher education has escalated. In the mid 80's I remember the state health department purchased a 400 megabyte disc pack for a Honeywell minicomputer for about $40,000. Today I have a 2 terabyte hard drive in my personal computer. Might have cost $200, I don't remember for sure. Google has or has had, I'm not sure where they are with it, a project to digitize all the world's books. How's that for information? The ease of acquiring information today is amazing. The other day I thought a piece of art work resembled the style of the English painter, Constable. I pulled that out of some recess in my brain lodged there more years ago than I care to remember probably in a Humanities course. So, I jumped on the internet, looked up Constable and looked at virtually everything he ever painted. Also the why's and wherefores of his style, his interest in meteorology, etc. All from home. Took me 15 minutes or less. In the past I would have first looked in whatever art books we have around the house, then gone to the public library and searched their card catalog and books. Total time: several hours. I also might not have found what I was looking for.

Twenty years ago if I wanted to do some research in the medical literature I had to travel to the County Medical Society Library, downtown Phoenix, and get them to order on inter library loan anything they didn't have. Or go to a large hospital and do the same thing in their med library. Or travel 100+ miles to the U of A med library in Tucson. Many hours of effort not to mention expense. For the last journal article I wrote I did all the literature review at home, in my office, on the internet.

It is difficult to see how this will shake out. What's more important, the acquisition of degrees from a university by actually being present on campus or the acquisition of knowledge, no matter it's derivation? I suspect that for the immediate future the initials after the name will be the most important. But does it really matter if the initials were acquired by sitting in some class room for 4 or more years or by doing internet education? Or is the “college experience” worth the exceeding great expense?
Like so many things, these are societal issues and need to be solved by society as a whole.

I strongly recommend an op ed piece written by Bret Swanson in Forbes. It can be found at
Thanks, Andrew, for recommending it.