by Coty Pinckney and Jim Muncy
In the the first article, we discussed the growing number of home-schoolers who will be ready to enter higher education in the years ahead, and asked whether or not existing institutions are well-placed to meet their needs and take advantage of their strengths. We contend that the ideal institution would (1) provide a valuable credential, (2) provide the opportunity and challenge to learn, including the opportunity to interact with other students intellectually, (3) continue to involve parents in their children's education, (4) provide students with experiences that will allow them to mature intellectually and spiritually, (5) allow students to remain actively involved in their home communities, thereby interacting with persons of different ages, (6) accomplish all this at less cost to parents and society than existing institutions (7) in an explicitly Christian environment, (8) embracing new methods and technologies when helpful for achieving these goals.
What would an institution that accomplished these goals look like? Imagine an institution focused on home-schooled students that conducts most of its education via distance learning: professors -- many of whom are home-schooling parents themselves -- give students a list of resources to investigate and react to; students take part in discussion with other students in the institution who may be located anywhere in the country; students, living at home, interact and discuss these topics with parents regularly. For about ten weeks each summer all faculty and students come together for face-to-face interaction, oral presentations, and for courses (such as some sciences) that may require facilities unavailable through distance learning.
This article focuses on point 6 above: Is it possible to accomplish all these other goals while improving the efficiency of higher education, saving resources for both parents and society? We start our investigation by looking at the budgets of our own institutions, then adjust these budgets to produce a ballpark estimate of the cost of Homeschool U: Valdosta State is a typical public university. A member of the University System of Georgia, it has recently been designated one of five universities in the fourth largest system of colleges and universities in the country. About 9,000 students attend VSU; when this is adjusted for the number of part-time students, there are about 7,500 "full-time-equivalent" students. Admission standards are not stringent, allowing the institution to meet its charge of catering to the educational needs of a wide variety of students. Tuition, fees, room, and board amount to about $4,900 per year for Georgia residents and $7,700 per year for non-residents.
On the other hand, Williams College is one of the most selective, private liberal arts colleges in the country. It has about 2,000 full time students. The various college guides all rate Williams' admission standards among the most competitive in the nation. Comprehensive fees at Williams amount to over $25,500 per year. The "sticker price" of these institutions, however, covers only a fraction of the total cost to society. Valdosta State benefits from a state subsidy, amounting to over $3200 per student. Williams has millions of dollars of income from its endowment and voluntary contributions. In addition, both institutions do not charge students for the cost of "capital services;" that is, the benefits they reap from buildings and equipment constructed or bought in previous years. One recent study suggests that once all direct and opportunity costs are included, the total cost to society of a year of education at Williams is over $60,000 per year.
What would be the cost of Homeschool U, assuming that students and faculty meet together for ten weeks a year? The two largest costs would be for summer rental of the facility, including room & board, and the costs of faculty. For facilities, Homeschool U could rent space from a traditional university. Such universities routinely rent dorm space and classroom facilities to conferences and short courses over the summer. Typical costs for programs not affiliated with the host university are $25 to $30 per day per participant, inclusive of room, board, classrooms, and computer access. For a full 10 weeks, the higher figure would amount to $2100 per student.
Faculty cost is more difficult to estimate. At Williams, costs of faculty salaries, benefits, and running department offices amount to over $9200 per student per year; at Valdosta State the equivalent cost is about $3100. This new institution, however, could make much greater use of adjunct faculty than is possible at residential colleges. Adjuncts in general are paid much less than full-time faculty, in part because their benefits are covered by another job, in part because many professionals value the opportunity to teach. This should be true even more so for an institution serving homeschoolers, since many qualified homeschooling parents are eager to participate as adjuncts. Furthermore, since the institution is non-residential, adjuncts need not be in any particular physical location, thereby broadening the possible supply of faculty for the non-residential part of the year. Adjuncts with Ph.D.'s typically are paid in the neighborhood of $1500 to $2500 per course. Even assuming small classes of 15, a full-time student taking the equivalent of 9 courses per year exclusively from adjuncts would incur only about $1500 in costs of faculty.
Thus we have a wide range in estimates of the possible cost of faculty, from $1500 for an institution staffed exclusively by adjuncts to over $9000 for Williams. If we assume that half of the faculty are adjuncts and the other half full-time, with the full-time faculty costing per student halfway between Williams and Valdosta State, we end up with faculty expenses per year of about $3800 per student. Adding this to the costs of room, board, and facility rental yields a total of $5900.
While these are the major costs of running a university, other costs can be substantial. Some of these would not be a concern for Homeschool U. The expenses of running a library -- almost $1500 per student at Williams, about $300 at Valdosta State -- are unnecessary for this program, as are athletics expenses, and the costs of upkeep of buildings and equipment. Other costs are inappropriate to include in these calculations. Financial aid, for example, is best considered a reduced price for certain students instead of a cost to the university. And most financial aid is supported by endowment income, outside agencies, or designated gifts, not by other students. Likewise, the costs of running an alumni and development office -- almost as expensive as the library at Williams -- are not a net cost to the university. Homeschool U. would only have a development office if it is bringing in more money than it costs, making the net impact on student costs negative. Other expenses, however, are unavoidable. While we would not have to operate a library, we would need many of the services that libraries perform. Some of these are becoming available for free over the Internet, but many will cost money. Other expenses include admissions offices (which partly serve as marketing arms for the private colleges and universities), senior administrative offices, financial offices, faculty and administrative recruiting, computing equipment and personnel, trustee expenses, a personnel office, a career counseling office, and legal fees. For the period of residence, there would also be a need for the equivalent of a dean of students office. Valdosta State spends about $1500 per student per year on these and related items, Williams over four times that much. While we would expect our costs to be higher than Valdosta State's for some items -- such as admissions, where a major marketing effort would be necessary to get the institution started, and career counseling, which deserves a more prominent role than what it receives at most institutions -- savings in other areas such as student services lead us to believe that a reasonable range for our costs per student per year would be $1700 to $2100. Thus our best estimate of the comprehensive fee per student per year for Homeschool U would be $7600 to $8000.
This cost does not hide capital services, as the typical college costs do, because we would be paying a fair rental rate for the facilities. Thus, the savings to society compared to other institutions of higher education would be substantial. This "sticker price" would be about the same as the non-resident price at Valdosta State, but less than a third of the price of Williams. As with any college, parents would incur additional costs for books, travel, and miscellaneous living expenses while the student is away from home. Families also would have to own a quality computer -- but many universities are now requiring each student to purchase such a machine anyway. Students would live at home about six months more per year than those at a typical residental college, raising grocery expenditures of the family, but this is likely to be offset by savings in other college living expenses and the value of services rendered to the family by the students during those months.
So is Homeschool U fiscally viable? By all means! The next qeustion: How such an institution can take advantage of the opportunity to rethink traditional higher education, so that it ends up being not only efficient and inexpensive, but also superior educationally to other institutions?
Jim Muncy is a homeschooling father of 4 who lives in Valdosta, GA, and is an Associate Professor of Marketing at Valdosta State University. Coty Pinckney is a homeschooling father of 6 who lives in Williamstown, MA, and is Dean of the Center for Development Economics at Williams College. They can be reached via the Internet firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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