06/18/2012 07:00 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

The Price of College Affordability

The political standoff in Washington over extending low interest rates on student loans would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Back then, there was an unwritten compact between government and higher education. Everyone largely assumed that if government -- that is, taxpayers -- financially helped more people attend and graduate from college, we would all be better off in the end. A college education was considered a "public good." Now it's a "private good," and the individual student is increasingly picking up the tab.

This shift in responsibility began in the mid-1980s, but it has exploded during the Great Recession. Revenue-starved states have slashed their higher-education budgets, forcing public universities and colleges, where three of every four students enroll, to dramatically raise tuition and fees. There is a limit to all this, and we may already be at the tipping point of affordability. Student debt, at $1 trillion, is now greater than credit card debt.

Steadily rising tuition costs and mounting student debt are now a political issue. Politicians are talking about "gainful employment" and increasingly asking what students are getting for their expensive educations besides indebtedness. If colleges and universities ignore their rising costs and continue their business-as-usual approach, what kind of academic world might emerge in America?

• Poor students will largely be absent from campuses as government loans and grants -- federal and state -- become scarcer and harder to obtain. Fewer classes and courses will be offered, student enrollment will decrease and degree programs will be cut or eliminated. It's already happening in many states. In California, community colleges have cancelled or severely downsized their summer offerings, the Cal State system plans to cut enrollment by 20,000 in 2013 if no additional state money is forthcoming this fall, and the University of California is enrolling more higher-paying international and out-of-state students at the expense of residents. Last year in Texas, the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board voted to phase out 64 degree programs with low enrollments.

• University and college students will increasingly focus almost exclusively on developing employable skills, as degrees that don't prepare students for a specific job will not subsidized. The pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake will live on only at premier private institutions. The governor of Florida, Rick Scott, foreshadowed an academic world with gainful employment as its standard when he questioned why his state should continue to support students who want to major in anthropology.

• The four-year bachelor's degree will virtually disappear. Time-to-degree will become paramount and shrink as classes will be available online 24/7. More and more students won't be willing to wait nine months to learn if an expensive, small liberal arts college will deign to admit them; they will instead enroll in online universities offering required courses in the comfort of home right now and for far less money. Some 20 colleges are already offering three-year degrees, and Western Governor's University, a private nonprofit, focuses on learning outcomes rather than credit accumulation. It offers courses anywhere, anytime.

• Production values will replace the "sage of the stage." The bulk of faculty, once the bulwark of colleges and universities, will be shoved to the sidelines as more cost-effective teaching practices like part-time instructors, adjuncts and online strategies become the norm. Professors are in many ways the Charlie Chaplins of academic specialties -- they produce, direct, write and star in their own classroom movies. But as distance-learning technology becomes more sophisticated, academics will be almost exclusively valued for their expertise - content knowledge - while content providers and production assistants will be the ones shaping course content into a format able to reach and appeal to thousands of online students. The decline in faculty status is already apparent on campuses. The fastest-growing group in the academy is part-time and contingent faculty, with non-tenure-track now outnumbering tenure-track professors.

• The research output of institutions will drastically decrease as more public colleges and universities operate like community colleges. When states fund four-year institutions, they are in part paying for faculty to do research. That research is costly, for several reasons. Professors teach less when they do research, they need infrastructure like labs in which to do the work and an administrative cadre exists entirely to support the research enterprise. Community colleges are the least expensive institutions of higher learning because they have no such research infrastructure. As research funding dries up, colleges and universities will focus more on teaching and learning, essentially what community colleges do. And with less faculty needed because of more online learning, the volume of research will inexorably fall.

• The role of postsecondary institutions in public discourse will greatly shrink. Colleges and universities are part of the democratic infrastructure because of their celebration of academic freedom -- the idea that the search for truth allows faculty to study and speak in ways that might upset the status quo. But as they become more results-oriented in terms of graduates hired, they will steer clear of doing or saying anything that might jeopardize their reputations -- and rankings -- as producers of job-ready graduates.

In this future academic world, the cost of a college education will likely decreases or at least be contained. We may celebrate or bemoan the result, but we shouldn't delude ourselves into believing that cost containment in higher education is merely a bookkeeping matter. The price of affordability will be the fundamental transformation of the nature, function and purpose of American higher education.

William G. Tierney is university professor and director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.