Utica College’s Tuition Drop: Philanthropy or Survival?

by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage

Yesterday, my alma mater Utica College announced it would be dropping the cost of tuition from $34,466 per year to $19,996, a drop in price of about 42%. According to UC President Todd Hutton, the college is undertaking this policy in order to make higher education more attainable. He said, “Ever since our founding, our mission has always been to expand opportunity among those for whom the dream of a college education had previously seemed unattainable.”

Most have praised Utica College for the decision, saying it would reduce the burden placed on students and help those of lower means to go to college, and this is true. However, as a former student and adjunct lecturer at Utica College, I can’t help but be skeptical about the motivation behind the price cut, and what it says about the state of American higher education.

It is no secret that the higher education industry is worried about decreasing student enrollment. Because of the huge debt burden imposed on graduates and the dire jobs market, the value of a college degree is increasingly being viewed as tenuous at best, and as a result, the booming enrollment that colleges have enjoys for decades is beginning to taper off. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment has gone down every year for the last four years, with a decrease of 2% during the last academic year.

College administrators see the writing on the wall, and have been implementing measures to halt the demise of their industry for years. The most prominent of these tactics has been the replacement of full-time, tenured faculty with part-time adjuncts like myself. It is no secret to those of us in the adjunct lounge that the college is employing us more, and our tenured peers less, in an effort to bring down costs in the face of decreasing student enrollment. The American Association of University Professors reports that since 1975, tenure track professors have gone from 45% of all college professors to less than 25% today, whereas part-time adjuncts now make up approximately 40% of the total college teaching staff in the United States.

Despite Utica College’s claim that the tuition drop is being pursued merely in an attempt to make college more affordable and attainable, it is far more likely that the college responding to national enrollment statistics. Small private colleges like UC are likely the first colleges to collapse due to declining enrollment, as they don’t have the name recognition of large private schools nor the state backing of public universities, so it isn’t surprising that they would be the first to experiment with policies like these to draw more students in the door.

The worst case scenario is that we are witnessing the beginnings of the bursting of the higher education bubble. Economic “bubbles” form when the perceived value of a good or service decouples from its actual value. When a bubble is created, a false perceived benefit of that product drives the price through the roof, typically to levels that are unsustainable. At some point, the product will fail to sell at the increasingly inflated price, causing a panic and a collapsing of the market for that product.

The first recorded example of an economic bubble was in Holland in the 1630s. Dubbed “Tulip Mania,” the value of tulip bulbs escalated to the point of absurdity, with some being worth as much as a house. When the most expensive and highly valued tulip bulb failed to sell, panic ensued and the tulip market completely collapsed. There have been a wide variety of economic bubbles in recent years, namely internet domains in the 1990s and housing in the 2000s. Some allege that higher education is the next bubble, and that it’s ready to burst.

Just like tulip bulbs in 1630s Holland, the perceived value of a college education has remained extraordinarily high in the face of dramatically reduced returns on the students’ investment. As noted earlier, the true value of a college degree has been on the decline for years, as student loan debt has increased, wages have stagnated or fell, and jobs that require degrees have begun to disappear. The decline in college enrollment is likely the first indicator of a bursting bubble, as students are realizing that attending college may not be as valuable as previously thought. The next indicator of a bursting bubble would be a dramatic reduction in price in response to the falling perceived value of the product, and this is reflected in Utica College’s dramatic price reduction. Only time will tell if this is the beginning of the burst, or simply an interesting marketing tactic.

Do not take this article as a criticism of the tuition reduction itself. It’s good to see students get a break for once. Furthermore, Utica College is a great school with a group of fantastic teachers. However, it must be said that college administrators, in collusion with the government and private lenders, have acted irresponsibly for decades, leading to the predicament that higher education finds itself in today. The industry as a whole would do well to have a long, hard look in the mirror, and this price cut may be just that.

Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Kevin previously sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and taught as an adjunct lecturer of Government and Politics at Utica College.

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