THE BLOG
08/20/2014 06:25 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

Is College Worth the Cost of Attendance?

With the cost of attendance rising across the board, for universities and community colleges across the country, and student debt rising exorbitantly, more and more students, parents, and educators worry about the overall value of higher education and the return on investment. Is higher education worth it? To find out the answer to this question I sat down with Don Mroz, Ph.D. and President of Post University.

Q: To provide some context, what are the principle reasons for the rising cost of attendance for higher education and are costs going to continue to rise in the event that no one in higher education takes steps to curb them?

A: It's important to address this question in context. The cost of education has risen in tandem with other expenses today. As taxes increase and the rate of inflation rises, schools must adjust pricing while keeping up with the standards being set. That said, there's no doubt that at many schools annual tuition increases are rising at a considerably higher rate than other expenses.

There are many trends in higher education that contribute to rising costs. For traditional, residential campuses, the cost to maintain facilities can be substantial. For example, schools often invest substantial amounts of money to cover the cost of athletics and other extracurricular activities and the equipment they require. And when I say athletics, I not only mean the school's sports teams, I also mean the recreational facilities that all students utilize. In the past several years, it has also become par for the course for schools to provide state-of-the-art living facilities, dining halls and other amenities. These are other costs that are unrelated to academics that can quickly drive up tuition. And of course, we must continue to hire qualified faculty and staff to be sure students can receive a quality education. All this is expensive.

At Post, we have made a conscious decision to balance the investments we're making in facilities with the need to offer an affordable education. That's why we have chosen to freeze our on-campus tuition for the past three years. By recognizing that academics must always come first, we're placing the greatest value on our programs and our academic foundation.

Q: Based on your experiences in higher education, do you think the value of education is still allowing a viable return on investment and if so (or if not) why?

A: In a word: Yes. There's no doubt that a college education opens the door to more career opportunities and that college graduates earn more and often have a better quality of life than people who don't graduate from college.

That said, the 19th century framework of education has fallen to the wayside. As higher learning institutions continue to grow and online education becomes increasingly accessible, we are moving toward a more diversified model of higher education. As we make education more accessible, we need to remain focused on ensuring it remains relevant to the students who are relying on it, and most of all that regardless of the methodology, it needs to be quality-focused.

One of the benefits of this new model is it gives schools opportunities like never before to hear feedback from students, and to incorporate that feedback in curricula and planning. As long as a school is factoring student needs into its goals as an organization and seeking the input of experts in the professional fields their students are pursuing, higher education will always produce a significant ROI. The standards in higher education today are high - the name of the game is providing more opportunities to more people.

Q: What, if anything, is being done or being considered to start curbing the cost of college attendance and what can students and parents do to help ensure the return on investment for college attendance?

A: There are two major ways we at Post University are working to make each student's experience a valuable one. Our first strategy is to adhere to a metrics-based internal evaluation system of our progress.

Being a career-focused school, we rely on program outcomes to guide decision-making, and we look for patterns that might show us that a certain degree program needs adjusting. If that's the case, we rely on student feedback, and input from our scholar-practitioner faculty, as well as a roundtable of experts and/or Advisory Boards in a given industry to re-evaluate and restructure the curriculum.

All of our programs are outcome-based. If something isn't benefitting the students in every way possible, we aren't afraid to nix it and start again, or bring in whoever is required to get it back on track.

The second way is to continue to prioritize innovation as an organizational goal. For example, a major pain point for students is and always has been the high cost of books and other supplies for each different course. It's not rare for books and other supplies to run close to $1,500 for one semester. So, we made it an organization goal to ease this burden for our students. As a result, we are now incorporating Electronic Course Materials (ECMs) in more and more of our courses. They eliminate the need for the expensive trip to the book store by including everything from electronic versions of textbooks to narrated PowerPoint presentations, YouTube videos, articles, case studies, and electronic access codes that allow students to access additional content, among other things. Our faculty have been truly enthusiastic to create Instructor Developed Materials (IDM's), which are based on their knowledge, and can be easily changed as the technology or industry changes. ECMs also ensure that students are getting the customized content they need to meet course outcomes, rather than buying a $200+textbook for just a chapter or two.

Q: What strategies can colleges and universities use specifically to curb the cost of college attendance and ensure that higher education remains viable?

A: The key here is innovation. There are a myriad of programs and opportunities college and university administrations can employ to curb their costs. The first is to start from a fiscally responsible base by not over-hiring and hiring the right people. At Post we spend money hiring who we need to provide quality education, and keep extras like building luxury living suites, etc., to a minimum.

When it comes to specific programs, there is a lot to be done to ensure students have affordable options. MOOCs are a huge reflection of the widespread concern that education is sometimes too expensive and access is sometimes too limited. Although MOOCs definitely have a place in higher education, most students require a more structured and supportive learning environment to truly achieve their goals. That's why we've focused on creating highly interactive and engaging online learning environments where the same faculty who teach on our campus, teach in our online classrooms. We've also invested in a strong instructional design department to ensure students are engaged in consistently high quality courses.

In addition, schools can also offer students a chance to earn dual degrees, making their time in higher education shorter and more efficient. Families concerned about affording to send multiple children to college can take advantage of college courses now being opened up to high school students.

Stakeholders, regulators, and the public, are all putting pressure on higher ed to make improvements in this area, and we are listening. At Post, following the specific metrics mentioned above to ensure that our degree programs are top-quality and effective plays a huge role in this.

Q: What strategies do you think might develop in the future? How do you think the cost of attendance may, in fact, be curbed?

A: The most valuable asset higher ed has at its disposal is its students. No matter where we go in the future, our biggest strategy must be to rely on the feedback from them; experimenting with different ways to give them the best education they can receive.

Going forward, we must also remember that we are no longer talking about traditional college students - we are talking about adult learners, as well. In fact, almost 90 percent of our total student body is comprised of working adult learners. So our programs must be not only accessible and affordable, but also immediately applicable to their careers.

I think the future of higher education will show a system that offers as many ways to learn as there are learners. Things like competency-based education or earning certificates as students earn their diplomas, for instance, are headed in the right direction.

For example, if a student is graduating with a bachelor's degree and he or she can also leave school with several certifications that demonstrate an ability to apply classroom learning in a practical way, the student will have a definite leg up in the job market. Couple that with having the credentials to pursue a career that you love, and to me, that's a good return on your investment.

We would like to thank Don for sitting down with us.