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The Costs of Educating Students

Posted Jan 23 2009 6:16pm
Let me say at the outset that I believe no "investement" could be better marketed than the "investement in a college education." I use the word "marketing" because that seems to be what we do: in order to be successful, go to BRAND college for the annual cost of $5x,xxx.99. For many people, existing in our society requires going to college so you can get the 4-year degree in order to obtain a decent job.

Recently, I came across somearticlesfrom the Delta Cost Project's report on the shifts in university spending. While initially agreeing with their conclusion, students spend more money for their college education only to receive a lower-quality education, I wound up disagreeing with the methodologies as reported.

Looking at what was meant by spending on education, I actually had to look at the report itself to see what constituted as spending on instruction. I found my answer on page 33 of the full report where spending on instruction includes such items as "faculty salaries and benefits, office supplies, administration of academic departments, and the proportion of faculty salaries going to departmental research and public service." Then later, the report divides spending according to three categories: Instruction, Student Services, and Admin/Support and Maintenance. So I'm looking at a classification problem because what exactly is "Admin/Support and Maintenance" and would costs occurred in the administration of academic departments get reported in this category? The 8 categories from pages 33 and 34 ostensibly get regrouped into the 3 reported categories, yet I can't figure out how.

And, ironically, the above rant leads me to my point: what does it take to have a high-quality education today? I consider three critical elements: teachers, students, and a learning environment. Yet, we don't report on those three elements all that often. At the college level, we have professors who reflect well-educated persons who may not know anything about teaching. The element of paying for a service leads to consideration of the students as consumers. And we often conceptualize a learning environment as a space with writing surfaces (supported by various forms of technology), chairs, heat, and light.

Yet, why do we educate students? What do we hope they obtain from the process? Do we impart knowledge or support students along their career development? Do student advisors count in the educational or administrative costs? Does the cost of transforming an old lecture hall into an active-learning environment get billed as an instructional or maintenance expense? For schools with residential communities, are residential communities learning environments or operational spaces?

I think we have learned a lot about learning. I believe that reconceptualizing the questions of what does it mean to educate can serve us well. Asking "What are students paying for?" can be a good first question, but how does the college environment serve to add value to a student's career experiences? We can rant and rave about student's underpreparedness or unwillingness to work hard, yet I do not know how well that discourse serves us if it is not attached to questions of fundamental importance. Why is education so critical in today's world? Is it really just because that's what you need to obtain a good job? Or is there something else that education is supposed to accomplish?
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