While embracing technology and streamlining programs may be a good start for most American colleges to offset the rising costs of higher education, Fort Hays State in western Kansas has taken a more aggressive approach: By outsourcing courses and some faculty to two Chinese universities, the public university is bringing their U.S. bachelor’s degree to about 3,500 Chinese students.
In Fall, 2000, Fort Hays began offering courses in mainland China to 40 students. Today, they are serving about 3,500 students at Sias International University and Shenyang Normal University. The course offerings can lead to a Bachelor of Business Administration, Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Leadership, Bachelor of Science in Information, Networking and Telecommunications and Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.
“After expenses, Fort Hays is banking more than $1.5 million a year from the tuition that Chinese students pay,” writes Mara Rose Williams of the Kansas City Star, “That’s tuition money that students at its Hays, Kan., campus don’t have to pay.”
By taking their degrees overseas, Fort Hays has managed to maintain the lowest tuition in 17 Midwestern states. The flip side, according to Williams, is that resources are then being diverted away from improving the campus back home.
You don’t have to search hard to find the writing on the wall: Higher education is quickly approaching a crossroads.
‘The Lost Decade of Higher Education
After a decade of overwhelming demand and fast expansion, college tuition is at an all-time high. Suddenly, American students have found themselves under a mountain of student loan debt — over $1 trillion — with no clear end to the price hikes in sight.
In his op-ed piece for the New York Times, Jeff Selingo writes that colleges dug themselves a hole during the industry’s "lost decade" from 1999 to 2009. “Those years saw a surge in students pursuing higher education, driven partly by the colleges, which advertised heavily and created enticing new academic programs, services and fancy facilities,” writes Selingo.
Though this type of growth would normally be regarded as overwhelmingly positive, higher education was seemingly ill prepared to handle it, and students were not the only ones to suffer. “So did schools building lavish residence halls, recreational facilities and other amenities that contributed little to actual learning,” Selingo writes. According to the article, debt taken on by colleges has risen 88 percent since 2001, reaching $307 billion.
Colliding with the Future
A great deal of research has gone into the potential pitfalls of such a scenario. According to Inside Higher Ed, a 2010 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicted that the United States is on a “collision course with the future.” The report estimated that in less than a decade, the nation will suffer a shortfall of at least 3 million workers with college degrees and 4.7 million workers with postsecondary certificates.
Colleges may need to streamline programs to focus on employment, according to Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center. Trimming the fat and lowering costs will make colleges more accessible and sensible to students.
Selingo thinks this is only one piece of the puzzle. Another piece is to embrace technology in the classroom. “Despite resistance to the idea from academics,” says Selingo, “evidence suggests that technology can reduce costs, improve student performance and even tailor learning to individual students.” Another solution is to offer more online education. Selingo salutes the efforts of Harvard and Stanford, which are both investing millions to offer several of their courses online, for free.
A third solution may be to reprioritize the academics themselves. “Administrative expenses have grown faster than instruction on many campuses,” says Selingo. Without investing in making academics as updated and accessible as possible, the status quo can be expected.
Though the approach that colleges take may be different, schools and students are changing. Many feel that the "lost decade" has left the industry in a heap of debt and trouble, and the economy and media are both beginning to echo this sentiment. Is college broken? The answer may not be cut and dry, but the question is being asked now more than ever.