Cost-Cutting College: Education's Future

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For years, American families have accepted soaring tuition costs as a necessary evil to pay for a college degree and promising career.

The recession, however, forced a change in thinking and pricing. Universities and students are seeing cost-cutting as a new way of life.

A Leaner, Meaner Education

Eryn Cotton loves working with children and paying for college as she goes. Besides teaching hip hop, she works three other jobs while going to school full-time.

She's part of a new generation hoping to downsize or eliminate college loans altogether.

"I just told myself right up front, 'Get it done and get it taken care of,'" she said.

This desire, or shall we say demand, has colleges racing to come up with plans for an affordable degree.

The latest average price increase for a four-year public school rose by 2.9 percent, the lowest increase in 30 years.

Christian colleges have also cut back. Dan Nelson, vice president for institutional data and research at Bethel University, said faith-based schools have forced themselves to get leaner and meaner.

"Many of us have streamlined our programs, undergone program reprioritization processes," Nelson said. "There's been quite a few salaries that have been frozen.

No More Books!

This era of cost-cutting has also led to new ways of educating. Imagine not having to lug heavy textbooks around, let alone pay for them.

That's the idea behind what's known as a textbook-free degree.

"It's not unusual for a student to come to me and literally say, 'The books for this class are half again as much as the tuition and I just can't afford it,'" Linda Williams, a faculty member at Tidwater Community College in Virginia, said.

Stories like that led TCC to make history. It's the first accredited institution to offer a degree that costs students nothing for course material.

The expected savings for a two-year degree: $2,000. Teachers access what's known as open educational materials -- free online.

"We're no longer constrained by what exists between the front and back cover of a traditional textbook," Williams said.

Dr. Daniel DeMarte, vice president for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer at Tidewater, said the free materials provide high level scholarly content.

"There is no compromise in quality in course textbooks or materials using open educational resources," he said. "And we think it's only going to get better."

Creative Cost-Cutting

Colleges and universities are also getting more creative with financial aid. At least two Christian colleges, Houghton and Spring Arbor, will help graduates repay their loans if they earn less than $38,000 a year.

Cotton uses several strategies to keep her tuition low. First, she takes as many community college classes as possible.

"You get more help I think at the community college and it's a third of the price, so why not?" she said.

She's also going online. Those classes are cheaper and allow her to squeeze in more work hours.

Regent University Executive Vice President Paul Bonicelli said online education will likely drive cost-cutting strategies for the forseeable future.

"It's not a panacea. It still costs to deliver a course online, but you can scale it in terms of an economy of scale," he explained. "You can make it possible to teach more students with fewer of those resources."

He admitted it brings out skeptics and critics. But Bonicelli said students want it, primarily, because of cost.

"What people are coming to now is, 'Where is the established brick and mortar campus, that has a reputation, that has the accreditations, that is also delivering education online?'" he explained.

"Then those students are more attracted to it because they realize, the quality's already there, the rankings are there," he said. "And I can get this education now even though I can't leave my home, which is 2,000 miles away."

A MOOC Education

Christian colleges have a special mission to help those students entering the ministry, who can't afford major loans.

For them and others who have high hopes and little money, there is growing interest in what's known as MOOCs -- Massive Open Online Courses.

"A MOOC allows you to take the course on your own time, at your own pace," Bonicelli said.

Unlike traditional online classes, these aren't tied to a semester schedule. MOOCs are also free for students not pursuing a degree. Those who need college credit can get big discounts.

And the content can be exceptional, from engineers teaching their stuff at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to a "What Is Jesus" class at Regent.

So the latest advice for students? Keep your options open and compare financial aid packages before making final decisions.

Plan ahead by taking college classes in high school, and be organized.

"You have to be determined and if you want it you can get it," Cotton said.

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Heather Sells

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