College costs are rising faster than the cost of living, even faster than medical expenses, according to a recent report from the College Board.
Clearly, students and families have a reason to wonder what’s driving these costs and what, if anything can be done to control them. It’s increasingly important that aspiring students also consider the true value being offered by an institution of higher education based on its ability to prepare them to be productive globally-minded citizens.
First, let’s acknowledge one of the main cost drivers that is beyond anyone’s control: the recession. It has left states with less money for four-year public institutions where costs increased this year by 8.3%, while increases at private non-profit four-year colleges have risen 4.5% over last year.
It’s important to realize that state support will represent a shrinking percentage of total operating budgets for public education institutions, even after this current recession ends. Another major cost driver beyond anyone’s control, of course, is the demand for college degrees, which continues to grow.
At Upper Iowa University, we confront these challenges in several ways.
Our tuition rates are in the lower half among peer institutions. We offer an aggressive financial aid program that enables us to provide virtually all UIU students with some form of financial assistance or scholarships. And we make sure students understand their grant and loan structure, what their eventual debt load will be, or how to mitigate it. We take great pains to work with students on this, and the result is that our students leave school with substantially less debt than at similar institutions.
But our ability to control costs begins with a vision and a strategic plan that distinguishes UIU from many peers and other institutions. At UIU, we are focused on meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. The homogenous enclaves that some higher education environments and experiences provide are not the real world. Today’s youth will soon be in the real world working and competing in a highly diverse global society. Colleges should prepare them for that by modeling such an environment in the context of learning, and we do.
Many higher education institutions aren’t structured for the 21st century. The typical college is a brick and mortar center where students generally go full-time and study a variety of subjects, and in the meantime mount an increasing load of debt.
We’ve chosen a different model at UIU. We offer four distinct learning expediencies of study: there is the traditional campus, with all the dormitories, recreational and athletic facilities and programs, as well as all the usual social and co-curricular activities you would expect. Next, there are UIU educational centers maintained in locations throughout the Midwest and South. Thirdly, there is the ability to take courses and programs of study online. And finally, UIU has international locations in Asia for foreign study. A student can take any of the four learning experiences, or mix and match. They all obtain the same diploma from a single transcript.
This structure enables students to choose the learning experience that works best for them. If they need to work while in school, they may choose online study or educational centers part or full-time. They may want to go to our traditional campus in Fayette for part of their time, and use one of our other learning experiences at other times.
To be sure, this structure also enhances our ability to generate different revenue streams, which is very important at UIU. We have never depended on a “large” endowment for support of our operating budget; however, our multi-learning experience structure results in a “nontraditional” endowment. It enables us to remain focused on the future of education and on demonstrating that there is more than one educational route to becoming a global citizen.
From a practical perspective to containing costs, given that we are tuition-dependent institution actively focused on keeping tuition within the reach of our various student population, we have had to integrate our various silos within the University through a major reorganization of back-office operations associated with enrollment management.
This approach of integrating our enrollment, marketing and certain key operational functions has allowed us to realize significant opportunities associated with our historical methods of doing business. By creating seamless, automated and integrated, back-office operations for the entire university, our model creates greater scalability of present administrative, budgetary and technological resources.
This allows us to to focus on improving academic quality and containing costs.
Lastly, from a purely business perspective, the student mix of the various learning experience we offer is key to the cost containment within our operations. Many institutions view the various learning experiences only as potential revenue generators, with us however, it is a key part of the formula to keeping our costs low.
It is important to note that each learning experience has a different fixed and variable cost due to the specific needs of each student.
As a result, not being restricted to a one-size-fits-all traditional campus that could carry heavy fixed costs that are underutilized, and ensuring that the mix is carefully monitored to allow for a healthy balance between low and high delivery costs, we have been able to meet our student expectations while containing tuition costs and providing a high value, high quality learning experience.
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