Glenn Reynolds, perhaps the leading libertarian critic of the higher education bubble, has yet another idea for popping that bubble:
What if you unbundled the "hotel" functions of a college -- classrooms, dorms, student center, etc. -- from the teaching function? You could basically have a college without faculty: Get your courses via MOOC, have a bunch of TA's and adjuncts to help students with problems, paper-writing, etc., but basically give the students the "college experience" of living together, etc., while getting your teaching from somewhere else.
He thinks the core function of college is living together, not teaching. It doesn't seem that Reynolds is being ironic here. He shows how little the libertarian "bubble" critics really think of professors. His thought is that what some (but not most) professors are good at can be captured by the MOOCs. But we certainly have no need of those tenured radicals who now lounge around our campuses.
I would take the separation the other way. My cost-conscious college of the future would be purged of every educationally irrelevant amenity, beginning with the dorms. No student center, no intercollegiate athletics, no gourmet cafeteria, no library, no labs, no student services staff, no health-club gym. I would keep only the books, the professors, a registrar and "dumb" (or not smart or gadgeted-up) classrooms. Maybe we'd need an admissions guy too, at least until our reputation reaches the level it will deserve.
I would locate the college in a small town in the sticks where rents are low. Students would live together in apartments they've rented from "private contractors. "I would have general guidelines on how to live together in a way conducive to studying and without wallowing in decadence. It might have been, at one time, that college dorms, fraternities, and all that kind of thing were part of some character-building community. But these days? Give me a break. Dorm life, even at some very good colleges, makes students worse or at least keeps them stuck in the immaturity of extended adolescence.
The community of college might actually be better if the students lived close to one another took pretty much the same classes, and of course, read pretty much the same books. Let these adults take care of their "residential experience" pretty much for themselves. The same goes with recreation and all that. Nothing is more ridiculous these days than student services staffs trying to figure out what keeps young adults from being bored. Other than giving them lots to read and write, I would be guided by the libertarian thought that being bored or not, and even being fit or not, is their own business. I would encourage them take religion and service to others seriously, but I would leave the organization of their charitable impulses and longing for God to them and to local churches. I would also allow their schedules to be flexible enough to work "off campus" for real wages and with the real risk of being fired.
My cost-conscious college would have only a liberal-arts or "bookish" curriculum with a common core for all students and a very narrow selection of "traditional" majors. One reason for that: these majors are the cheapest. Faculty in those fields are basically paid subsistence wages, and there are no equipment needs, except for a comfortable, climate-controlled, well-lit meeting place. We'd even be pro-choice on chalk.
Classes would be small. This wouldn't be a concession to luxury. Small classes are indispensable in holding students accountable for what they've read and what they know. Every class would have a heavy "writing component," and all students would develop a personal relationship with faculty on the basis of their writing. Being held accountable through such personal relationships is what makes college worth the money.
The faculty hired would be "liberally educated" and so, able to teach a variety of subjects. They'll teach what the students need to become liberally educated, not their research specialties. Students would take a lab science or two, but I would have them do that at some local community college. Scientific inquiry will be integrated into the curriculum in numerous ways, but no student will major in natural science. And no student will major in the social sciences insofar as they unreflectively imitate the methods of the natural sciences.
The college library is not indispensable. All the key articles in the journals, many, many primary sources, and such are online. Real books are cheaper than ever, and I have no objection to using e-versions. If you look carefully, you can see colleges emptying their libraries of books and freeing up space for other activities. There are plenty of downsides to treating libraries this way. But the techno-deconstruction of the brick-and-mortar library I will use to my college's advantage.
My college, you might object, will have to deal with numerous accreditation issues. But I suspect that I can keep costs so low that government subsidies won't be needed, and the intrinsic excellence of our activities and our graduates will clearly transcend the limited horizon of the accrediting agencies and their bogus competencies. Maybe we can achieve the genuinely disruptive outcome of dispensing with accreditation.
So I agree with the always-thoughtful Glenn Reynolds that college costs too much. I disagree on why it does, because I disagree on what the essential function of higher education is. I certainly don't think it's being a hotel.