Reducing the Cost of Undergraduate Education

A Proposal
Ian Johnston
Vancouver Island University
Nanaimo, BC, Canada.

(November 2011)

Preliminary Remarks

The following pages outline a simple proposal which might help significantly to reduce the cost of undergraduate education for some students. The proposal would be simple to implement, would impose no additional financial burden on the universities or the government, and could be quickly and easily abandoned if it failed to meet its intended objectives.

The major details of the proposal are outlined in the next section of this paper. In the section following that one, I discuss why I believe that what I am proposing could be an effective way of meeting, at least in part, an increasingly urgent problem. And in the final section, I discuss some of the objections one might make to these suggestions.

I am taking for granted the fact that we all recognize the problem I am addressing, the rising cost of an undergraduate education, as a serious issue, one which is  likely to get even more pressing in the coming years. Hence, I make no attempt here to persuade the reader that making an undergraduate education more affordable for students is something worth attending to. I also assume that the reader of this paper is reasonably familiar with the standard institutional arrangements by which a university or college offers courses and awards academic credits. Thus, I do not discuss these in any detail.

One final preliminary point. This paper is not intended as a critique of existing institutions offering undergraduate instruction. Nor am I suggesting that my proposal would improve the quality of undergraduate education (although in some cases it might). My concern here is to help students who cannot afford the high cost of an undergraduate education in the present system find a cheaper way to obtain the academic qualifications they need to prepare for a professional career. In a world where there was sufficient money for all students to attend existing institutions, there would be no need for what I am suggesting.

The Proposal

Under existing arrangements, a student who wishes to earn the credits necessary for an academic qualification has only one option: she must enrol in an institution which offers credit courses, select a range of courses, pay the fees, and complete the work assigned successfully. While she is free to choose from a long list of institutions, a huge range of elective options, and some different learning environments (receiving instruction and assignments on campus or online or by correspondence, and so on), she has no choice about registering and paying fees.

I propose we set up a system whereby the student can study any way she sees fit, without enrolling at an accredited p0stsecondary institution, and can then earn the credit for a particular course by successfully passing an examination set by an institution with the authority to grant academic credit. The student would pay a small fee to cover the costs of invigilating and marking the examination and keeping a record of the courses she has completed (her transcript).

The process would work something like this. The sponsoring institution (e.g., the Open University or Vancouver Island University) would advertise (on the internet) a series of dates (say, two per year) in which it would be holding examinations for a particular course (e.g., English 100). This notice would be accompanied by a detailed list of what the candidates would be expected to have mastered, what the examination would be testing (e.g., a list of books, sample examination questions, perhaps a recommended text book, and so on), and the nature of the examination. The student would apply to sit the examination, pay a small fee, take the examination, and, if successful, receive the number of academic credits appropriate for that course, just as if she had successfully completed the course as a regular student at a university. Such credits would be transferable to other academic institutions in the usual way, should she decide at a later date to enrol as a student in a regular course of study on campus.

In this way, a student could acquire the academic credits necessary for a degree (or some of them) without attending a university and without paying any of the usual university fees. The process would leave her free to choose how she wished to prepare herself for the series of examinations she would have to go through.

The sponsoring university would have no obligations other than to provide advance notice of the examination (along with specific details of what the student is expected to know), to schedule and invigilate the examination, to assess the quality of the student’s work on the examination, and to keep a record of the successful results.

Some Observations

Let me open this discussion with an important observation. Undertaking an academic program of learning that will lead to the credentials necessary to enter a profession consists essentially of two parts—acquiring the knowledge and skills demanded by one’s chosen profession and then demonstrating one’s competence in the relevant areas. For various historical reasons we have given our postsecondary institutions firm control over both of these: a student must attend a university or college not merely to demonstrate competence and earn the necessary certification but also to learn the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful. We have, in other words, given a monopoly over student learning and testing to institutions which, by their very nature are extremely expensive to operate.

One might note, in passing, that the present arrangements might raise objections about things other than the expense. John Stuart Mill (in On Liberty) acknowledges that society or its designate certainly has a right to test the competence of candidates for entry into the professions, but he vehemently opposes giving any single entity the sole right to determine how those candidates must prepare themselves. Such a monopoly, he points out, is an infringement of liberty and a sure way to enforce conformity and suppress innovation.

In addition, to compound the problem, our universities and colleges now have a virtual stranglehold on entry into the professions. For a number of reasons, in the past fifty years (at least) those professions which earlier did not require university academic credentials have almost all made such credentials an essential part of their certification process.

As a result, someone who wishes prepare herself to enter a profession has no choice. The postsecondary institution is her only option, and her learning must accommodate itself to the demands (financial and otherwise) of the institution she chooses. For many students, this presents no problems. Most of our colleges and universities are well run and offer excellent learning programs for students. And in comparison with the costs in some other countries, the fees in Canada may still be something of a bargain. But the very nature of a modern college or university ensures that it will be increasingly expensive to operate, and as long as we expect tuition fees to play a significant role in meeting those expenses, the costs to the student will inevitably rise.

The proposal I am suggesting would at least give a student a choice. By allowing him to detach the learning component from the testing and to explore alternatives outside the university, it would free him from the requirement to attend university at all. He is, in effect, in charge of his own learning and can present himself for examination whenever he feels ready.

Those wishing to raise immediate objections might first of all consider that some universities already have in place a system rather similar to what I am suggesting. A student can challenge a course and ask a particular department to assess her competency, so that she may receive credit for that course without actually enrolling in it. If she is successful on the test, she receives the credit. But there is one important condition: in order to receive the academic credit, she must pay the full fee for the course. While one might be tempted to reflect on the justice of this arrangement, I mention it here merely to point out that the practice of awarding credit for demonstrated competence (however acquired) has already been widely accepted in our academic institutions.

Of course, the student would have to have help in preparing for the examination, and some of that assistance might involve expenses (e.g., a tutor), but that would be her choice. All sorts of resources are available nowadays, including excellent lecture series and workshops (many free of charge) in a wide range of academic subjects. Many retired academics or graduate students would be ready to offer their services for a modest fee. There is no reason to suppose that there would be any shortage of free or reasonably priced help for the student who required it. In any case, the responsibility for getting help and, if necessary, paying for it would be hers.

But the most important assistance a student working on her own would require would come from the learning groups which she and others would establish either face-to-face or on the internet. I am fully aware that creating one more way in which students can study in isolation from other students contributes very little to student learning. There must be a vital social component, in which students interact as they learn. That was (and remains) an important reason why a conventional college education is so valuable. But the ordinary classroom is no longer the only place where such interaction can routinely take place (as colleges themselves know very well, for they have been actively promoting online interaction for years), and modern students are familiar enough with such social groups. If students were given the freedom to organize their own learning environment, they would need no encouragement to organize on their own the social interaction essential to learning.

What is missing, of course, is the college professor. But we are surely well past the day when we believed (if we ever really did) that no valuable academic learning can possible take place without the constant supervision of a rigorously trained academic specialist to guide every step of the process. Of course, professors have their uses, and there is no reason why a group of students preparing on their own cannot have access to excellent academic instructors, as they see fit. They might also choose to draw on the services of other teachers (from family and friends), just as parents who home school their children routinely do. The program of learning is theirs to organize, and if they organize it badly, then they will find out soon enough. If we give them the freedom to arrange their own learning, we might be agreeably surprised by many of the results.

One additional advantage of this proposal, by the way, is that it would help to address a growing problem of overcrowding. For in these financially strapped times, even if a student is prepared to pay the full tuition, there is no longer any guarantee that he will be able to take the courses he wishes. Offering an alternative route to the credit he seeks (and in many cases needs for the program he has chosen) might provide a useful way of coping with this difficulty.

The present model of the postsecondary institution, which has served us very well in the past, cannot be sustained without massive injections of money, which governments, for obvious reasons, are reluctant to provide. After years of reducing budgets, there is very little the institutions can do to make themselves more productive (in my view, given what we ask universities and colleges to provide and how we expect them be administered, they work quite efficiently). And we cannot continue to raise tuition fees without effectively shutting the doors against an increasing number of worthy students and encumbering many of the others with massive debts. It is time we enabled students to explore cheaper alternatives.

Let me finish this section by repeating what I said at the start. What I am proposing will not provide students a better academic education than the existing system, and if we were not experiencing such difficulties in financing our postsecondary institutions, I would not be making this proposal. But given that academic credentials are essential for entry into the professions and that for some students the cost of attending college are prohibitively high, we must find new ways to assist students with less expensive learning programs which will enable them to earn such credentials.

Further Discussion

By way of heading off some immediate objections, let me make a few more observations. First, implementing what I propose need not be done on a large scale all at once. It would be fairly easy to organize it initially as a series of examinations in a range of first- and second-year subjects, especially in those which are required for many academic programs (English, Mathematics, Psychology, Economics, Accounting, History, Computer Science, Spanish, Geology, and so on). The offerings could be expanded into upper-division subjects should the demand arise.

Second, I freely concede that there are some courses which require a continuous evaluation throughout a semester because competency in the material cannot be easily assessed in a single examination. But these are relatively few, especially in the lower division, and there are a great many others in which testing for competence is fairly easy. The nature of the examinations would be determined by the subject matter. Some might be very simple and short interviews (e.g., Conversational Spanish). Others might be standard three-hour exams (e.g., Mathematics, Psychology, Sociology). Some might require the student to submit a paper or a portfolio. Science courses which require laboratory experience could organize appropriate examinations requiring the student to demonstrate the relevant skills. Since, as I have mentioned, universities already test students for competence and award credit on the basis of such tests, this matter is hardly a problem for them.

Students working on their own would not have access to the library facilities on campus, but there are more than enough resources online to take care of the research requirements for lower division courses. If they are expected to demonstrate those skills (in an essay or examination), they will have ample opportunities to learn how to do that without ever entering the physical facility on campus.

Those concerned about academic standards should take note of the fact that these will be set by the nature of the examination and the marking. There is no reason to suppose that such standards will be compromised, unless those in charge of the testing fail to carry out their job properly. The same is true of any academic program, inside or outside the institution. These observations apply equally well to worries about academic misconduct (i.e., cheating).

My major concern, should such a proposal be adopted, is that some universities and colleges (for their own purposes, which I will not speculate on here) might create obstacles by refusing the grant transfer credit to students who had not taken regular courses. However, if the sponsoring institution which organizes and marks the examinations and grants credit to the successful students offered no clues on the students’ transcripts as to how the credit was obtained, this problem might not arise.

Whether this proposal would achieve the desired goal of lowering the cost of undergraduate courses significantly would depend upon the response. If a sufficient number of students successfully pursued learning on their own and if the community and the market responded with a variety of affordable and effective ways of assisting such students, we might be able to encourage a vital new educational alternative. If the response was insignificant, the experiment could be easily abandoned.

However, without some alternative to the existing system, we are creating an increasingly intractable problem. We demand that students earn academic credentials in order to enter a professional career, and yet we keep increasing the financial cost of the only option they have for obtaining such credentials. By all means let us keep that option as viable as possible, but let us also tell the students that they do have another path they can select.