Bernie Sanders, a leading Democratic Party candidate for president, has proposed making college “free” and erasing all $1.6 trillion in student debt. He calls the cost of higher education a “national disgrace,” which it is. But his proffered remedy is so wrong-headed that it’s all I can do to keep steam from shooting out of my ears.
Other commentators have opined on how free tuition would benefit mostly affluent Americans who qualify for college admissions, while debt forgiveness would reward students who recklessly piled on debt they couldn’t repay and penalize those who made sacrifices to make good on their loans. Less frequently noted, taxpayers should not be compelled to subsidize young wastrels who spend years partying or engaged in a search to “find themselves.”
But in this post, I focus on a question Sanders neglects to ask: Why are college costs are so high? His platform ignores administrative bloat. It ignores low faculty productivity. And it only partially addresses the gold-plating of buildings, grounds, and facilities. If we want to make college affordable without devastating taxpayers, we need to strip the costs out of the higher-ed sector.
What if… What if students could contract directly with accredited college professors to take a course rather than contract with a college or university?
What if college professors could create their own courses in response to market demand and deliver them directly to students?
How much would professors have to charge per course if most of the costs of higher ed’s buildings, grounds, facilities, and vast administrative apparatus were shorn away?
Imagine that a professor taught three classes per semester: one large class (100 students), one medium-sized class (35 students), and one small class (15 students). Imagine that he (or she) taught two semesters per year and took the summer off to pursue research, write books, or follow his bliss. The total teaching load would be 300 students.
Next, let’s use the following average 2016 salary figures listed in the Chronicle of Higher Education: $134,000 for full professors, $82,000 for associate professors, and $70,000 for assistant professors. For purposes of calculating an average salary across the professoriat, let’s assume that full professors comprise 1/3 of the total, associate professors 1/3, and assistant professors 1/3. Then let’s add 30% for the cost of health care and other fringe benefits. We come up with an average compensation of roughly $125,000 per professor.
If we divide that $125,000 cost over 300 students, we get an average cost per student per course of $416. Let’s add $184 per course so these hypothetical free-lance professors can cover the cost of accreditation, marketing, information technology, bookkeepers, and lecture-hall and classroom rentals — in other words, the cost of operating a small business. Under such a free-contract arrangement, students would wind up paying $600 per course — or $6,000 a year for a full course load.
(Actual prices likely would vary depending upon the renown of the professor in question. A superstar scholar would charge more. Others, just starting out, would charge less.)
Over time, I would expect to see considerable innovation. Professors might take on larger teaching loads and hire assistants to help with grading. They might incorporate elements of distance learning. Certainly, students would be free to avail themselves of distance-learning classes to access courses and/or professors not available locally. Professors might team up to teach an entire curriculum in, say, economics or the classics of world literature.
In Bacon World, students would remain free to pursue the expensive, four-year residential option with football teams, student lounges, gyms, fraternities, sororities, drunken sex, intramural athletics, guest speakers, diversity bureaucrats, enforcing ideological rigidity and all the rest, if they so wish. But they would also be permitted to get a stripped-down but quality education at a fraction of the cost.
The cost of tuition and fees at four-year Virginia institutions in 2017-18 ranged from $9,056 at Virginia State University to $23,400 at the College of William & Mary. The difference between those numbers and $6,000 per year under the Bacon World plan represents administrative bloat, a coddled professoriat, mission creep, expensive building programs, and student activities of dubious educational value.
Here’s the real kicker: State funding per full-time-equivalent student in Virginia in the 2016-17 school year was $5,800. It’s a bit higher now. If the Commonwealth of Virginia paid that money to students instead of institutions, under a Bacon World scenario in which students and professors were free to contract directly with each other, higher education would be free — without dunning taxpayers for one more dime.
Of course, Sanders would never endorse such a plan — too much free enterprise involved, not enough subsidies for the corrupt, inefficient bastions of ivory tower leftism. But we don’t need to wait upon the federal government to get the ball rolling. We can create such a system here in Virginia, should we choose to.
James Bacon is the publisher of baconsrebellion.com