Want to Help Start a Christian Liberal Arts College with $10,000 Tuition?

As close readers know, this has been a tough year for the Christian university where I work — as it has been for many other high tuition-high aid private colleges that share Bethel’s economic challenges, if not its religious mission and culture. So after spending yesterday afternoon representing our faculty at a meeting of Bethel’s board of trustees, I came home primed to find interesting this proposal in Inside Higher Ed:

What the world really needs is world-class liberal arts education for $10,000 per year, in order to expand access to college and dramatically increase the number of well-trained liberal arts graduates in the country.  Is that ambitious goal possible? I decided to find out by conducting a thought experiment.

I started with the example of Reed College, where I served as president for the past six years.  Reed, like most of its peer institutions, currently charges over $70,000 for tuition, room, board and fees.  For that price, it delivers a very powerful liberal arts education, with almost 20% of its graduates going on the [sic] gain doctoral degrees.  I admire the Reed education immensely.  What if we reverse-engineered that elite liberal arts college business model to eliminate all but essential costs related to educational quality?  How low could we drive tuition?

John KrogerThe author is John Kroger, a former federal prosecutor and Democratic attorney general of Oregon who recently completed a six-year stint at the head of Reed College. Here’s some of how he thought his way to an affordable private liberal arts college:

  • He kept a core of humanities and social sciences, but took away all experimental sciences (leaving in math and theoretical physics) in order to leave space “shared, generic, and low cost.”
  • By the same token, he would also leave out libraries, athletic facilities, dining services, and faculty offices.What space there is would be rented (or donated by corporate partners) and used thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, and twelve months a year.
  • No dorms — Kroger would locate this kind of college in a city, “allowing students to live with their families” and letting the college save on numerous costs. And he might link multiple campuses in a single network in order to generate economies of scale.
  • No more jobs for most auxiliary staff, including admissions officers and perhaps academic support — “The college would be open, first come, first serve, to anyone with a 1100 math and reading SAT and a high school diploma or GED.” Total enrollment: about 1,000 students who may not need remedial coursework.
  • Faculty costs are a big piece of the puzzle, so Kroger would offer compensation lower than what most tenure-track faculty expect — but considerably higher than what adjuncts make. (Any increases dependent on strong teaching evaluations.) Professors would teach three courses per semester, but not have research/publication expectations.

In the end, Kroger thinks that he arrives at the $10,000-a-year institution he envisioned:

Using this model, our new college could offer something total unavailable today: a strong liberal arts education, with high quality teaching and intellectual skills development, at a fraction of the cost of traditional education.  We would lose some of the benefits of the traditional residential liberal arts model, particularly in the experimental sciences, but the gains might be immense.

Old Dorm Block at Reed
Block of dorms at Reed – Creative Commons (Cacophony)

I’ve got immediate qualms about several aspects of the proposal… I think teaching should count much more than scholarship at liberal arts colleges, but research feeds teaching — and at its best, is done in collaboration with students… I didn’t see anything about the fine arts — which, like the experimental sciences, do tend to have significant needs for space and equipment and cost much more per credit than the humanities and social sciences, but seem central to any liberal arts model… Kroger leans on a couple of elements of highly dubious value: standardized tests as a basis for admission and student assessment of faculty teaching as a basis for performance review… And I’m not sure that any college can dispense with the cost of counseling and tutoring services.

But I’m getting to the point where it’s hard not to want to scrap the entire model and start over. I’m not quite ready to ask “What have we got to lose?”, but at this rate, it’s not far off.

After all, you don’t have to look hard in space or time to find colleges more like this model than what Americans have become accustomed to in the last 50-100 years. And if nothing else, thought experiments like Kroger’s force us to ask serious questions of our so-called “value proposition”:

  • Underwater core of Reed College's nuclear reactor
    Unlike Reed, Bethel does not (yet) have its own nuclear reactor — U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    If, like me, you think the sciences are essential to the liberal arts, can you do away with experimental sciences? Or could you still teach scientific thinking and quantitative reasoning without labs, use social scientific methods to give students experimental experience, and then think more intentionally about studying the intersection of science, technology, and society in humanities courses?

  • If the arts are essential, can you do some version of some of them without fixed, specialized space? For example, it’s been interesting to listen in on some colleagues at Bethel think about doing theatre out in the community, perhaps without a traditional performance venue. Or could you find institutional and individual partners in the community to students explore creativity and beauty in the visual arts and music?
  • Is the “co-curriculum” essential to student learning? Would cognition be overdeveloped at the expense of other kinds of formation, or can liberal arts classes themselves bring about emotional, spiritual, and relational development?
  • Do students really want to pay for an all-inclusive package, or would they be happy to spend/borrow much less money if it meant removing meal plans, intercollegiate (or even intramural) sports, cable TV packages in dorms, and various other amenities from the college experience?

(For that matter… if they could significantly reduce debt, would it be easier to persuade more students from a wider array of backgrounds that taking humanities courses is a good way to minimize economic risk?)

Finally, a question that Kroger wasn’t trying to address: is it possible to move Christian liberal arts education into something like this more affordable model?

I think it may be.

First, it already seems evident to me that the learning outcomes most distinctive of Christian liberal arts — both the wholeness and the holiness — are already being achieved to a significant degree in through faculty teaching and mentoring, not just in campus ministries, discipleship programs, missions trips, etc. And I’d find it invigorating for faculty and students to collaboratively rethink how members of a Christian learning community could engage in corporate disciplines like worship and service. (Perhaps in part by building close partnerships with urban churches, nonprofits, and agencies.)

Second, I’m sure that it’s hard for faculty at elite liberal arts colleges or research universities to imagine doing more teaching for less money. But what Kroger has in mind for salary and benefits is likely not all that far off from what many Christian college faculty already experience. (And most of them teach seven or eight courses a year, not six… or they soon will.)

Third, such a thought experiment compels us to remember that Christians of all callings serve an unchanging mission, building institutions as necessary but knowing that such structures will be reshaped or replaced as their context shifts. There are no doubt aspects of the Christian liberal arts college that should not change, but that list is always going to be longer than absolutely necessary when it starts with people defending what is rather than reimagining what could be.

Which also underscores why it’s so hard to imagine something like a Christian version of Kroger’s model coming from an existing institution. It’s not impossible that my employer would not just give up on building new science labs, but sell off its suburban campus, move back to St. Paul, and eliminate co-curricular and auxiliary lines from the budget. But even if I could gamble, I wouldn’t bet on that scenario transpiring.

But if you want to work with me on starting a new Christian liberal arts college from scratch… well, welcome to my most common daydream. Let’s talk.