A small number of universities are starting to go against the grain, reducing amenities and frills in favor of keeping the costs relatively low.
Neil Theobald is the president of Temple University, which recently began offering students $4,000 per year in grants — if they promise to limit the number of hours they work during the school year and graduate on time.
Donal O'Shea is the president of the New College of Florida, the small honors college for Florida's state university system. There, costs have historically been kept to a minimum by not offering extracurricular sports and amenities.
Morning Edition's David Greene spoke with Theobald and O'Shea about the choices they've made, how they're pulling them off and why they think it is good policy.
On varsity sports
Theobald: We eliminated five varsity sports. We are trying to reallocate our funds toward our student body, what goes on in the classroom, what goes on in the lab, so we scaled back by five sports. But it was incredibly difficult.
O'Shea: We don't have any varsity sports. We are a very lean organization. We invest in faculty. It's about a 10:1 student-faculty ratio. ... Only 40 percent graduate with debt, and of those who have debt, the average debt is a little under $18,000. We invest in faculty instead of sports and even some student services.
On running bare-bones operations
O'Shea: Oh, I worry about it all the time. What if someday no one wants to come? At the time, we have many more students applying than there are places. But I have four kids. I know how they think. And, as I say, it is a risk.
Theobald: You've got to set priorities. There is an arms race for spending. And so a university needs to know who they are, who their students are and what their mission is. We need to focus on getting them in, getting them a course of study, making sure courses are available when they need them and getting them out in four years. That's the priority for our students.
On the breaking point in college costs
Theobald: There will be pushback. Parents are becoming much more cost-conscious today in looking at universities. ... When you get top privates touching $60,000 a year, that's a quarter-million dollars for four years! I think people are really taking a step back.
O'Shea: I think what is going to stop being a major driver is student expectation. I think the worry about cost is outstripping the desire for ... huge facilities and things like that.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here on MORNING EDITION, we've been talking about how Americans are paying for college. Today, we hear from two college presidents: Neil Theobald, of Temple University, in Philadelphia; and Donal O'Shea, of the New College of Florida, in Sarasota.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
These are two very different institutions. Temple is a large, public research university with almost 40,000 students. The New College is tiny, the honors college for Florida's state system with fewer than 1,000 students enrolled. Our colleague David Greene recently spoke with both college presidents about the tactics they're using to lower costs for students.
DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Dr. Theobald, let me start with you, if I can. You're trying something at Temple that some other universities are trying, and this is a guarantee that if students meet certain requirements, they will graduate in four years, and if they don't, they'll get the rest of their tuition for free. Tell me about the program.
DR. NEIL THEOBALD: Temple is Philadelphia's public university, mostly working-class student population. And the concern we have is that our students are basically running headlong into what is increasingly becoming this myth of working your way through college. When I went to college, I worked 10 to 15 hours a week. When I talk to students now who are working their way through college, they're working 30, 35, 40 hours a week. And the idea here is that if they will commit to working 15 hours a week or less, we will provide them a scholarship that's equal to what they would have earned working 30 hours a week. However, they must commit to staying on track to graduating in four years, because our students who graduate in four years graduate with about half the debt of those who take six years to graduate.
GREENE: That additional aid for the students, saying that you'll commit to making up for the amount of work that they're not doing if they bring it down to 15 hours, what kind of financial pressure does that put on the university?
THEOBALD: Well, we're reallocating aid from other purposes - merit aid, other types of need-based aid. But we're trying to tie it to that major factor, which is the huge number of hours our kids are working off-campus.
GREENE: You made some news by eliminating some varsity sports on campus. And I wonder, was that the part of the reallocation you're talking about, to come up with more money for programs like this?
THEOBALD: That is correct, gut-wrenching. We eliminated five varsity sports. We are trying to put - allocate our funds towards, you know, our student body, what goes on in the classroom, what goes on in the lab. So we scaled back by five sports. But it was incredibly difficult.
GREENE: What made it difficult?
THEOBALD: When I met with the student-athletes and explained to them that they'll keep their scholarship after this year, but that we would no longer be participating in baseball, in softball, in gymnastics, track and field.
GREENE: Dr. O'Shea, let me turn to you. The New College of Florida, a very different size and type of institution, if we compare it to Temple; a permanent fixture at the top of the national best values rankings, which measures both low cost and academic excellence; and I understand that one way you have saved money is the New College does not have any varsity sports.
DR. DONAL O'SHEA: We don't have any varsity sports. We're a very lean organization. We invest in faculty. It's about a 10-to-1 student-faculty ratio. The state's been very generous, so the tuition's quite low. Only 40 percent graduate with debt, and of those who have debt, the average debt is a little under $18,000. And we invest really in faculty there, as opposed to sports, and even some student services.
GREENE: Well, and I was going to say, administration-wise, you are incredibly lean.
O'SHEA: We are, yeah.
GREENE: You share a library with another school.
O'SHEA: Yes, we do.
GREENE: Well, one of the things we hear a lot from schools these days is that in order to compete for students, they have to offer things like fancy dormitories, fancy dining halls. I mean, it's one reason we've seen new buildings constructed on campuses, to be able to compete. I mean, without some of those priorities, do you worry that you're not going to measure up to some of the schools that are focusing on services and having people clean dorm rooms and have nice cafeterias?
O'SHEA: Oh, I worry about it all the time. You know, what if someday no one wants to come? At the moment, that's not - we have many more students applying than there are places. But I have four kids. I know how they think. And, as I say, it's a risk.
GREENE: Well, Dr. Theobald, you're a university president. Your own academic background is in college finance. And so let me let you jump into the conversation here. Because some people have talked about, you know, college spending these days as an arms race. I mean, universities are spending more on services, spending more, you know, to upgrade their campuses to attract more people, and that unilateral disarmament is really dangerous. You know, it could be financial suicide, which comes to mind as I listen to Dr. O'Shea's worries. What do you think about that notion?
THEOBALD: Well, clearly, I think the New College is a great role model here. There is - you know, you've got to set priorities, and there is an arms race for spending. And so a university needs to know who they are, who their students are and what their mission is. We need to focus on getting them in, getting them a course of study, making sure courses are available when they need them and get them out in four years. That's the priority for our students.
GREENE: The types of cost-saving measures that you have been putting in place, are these things that other colleges could easily adopt?
O'SHEA: Yeah, one of the things that makes running a higher-ed institution difficult is there are so many different constituencies. We get pushed to add some sports - I can't imagine what sort of pushback Neil must have got in closing sports programs. In Florida, we see schools adding football programs because the pressure to do so is intense, even though they are going to lose massive amounts of money. I think what's going to stop being a major driver is student expectation. I think the worry about cost is outstripping the desire for sort of huge facilities and things like that.
GREENE: Dr. Theobald, let me just ask you, especially with your focus on college financing, I mean, when you hear Dr. O'Shea talk about potentially hitting an important moment where worries among families over the cost of college will outstrip the desire for, you know, nicer dorms and nicer cafeterias - the arms race, so to speak - are we really reaching that moment?
THEOBALD: I really think we are. When you get top privates are touching $60,000 a year, that's a quarter-million dollars for four years. I think people are really taking a step back. Yet, Temple, we're obviously, it's a public, but we're still $24,000 a year, all-in. So it's $100,000 investment. So, for most people, $100,000, they're going to think very carefully and look at what their options are.
GREENE: Thank you both for taking the time to talk to us.
O'SHEA: Thanks very much, David.
THEOBALD: Enjoyed it very much.
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INSKEEP: David was talking with Neil Theobald, the president of Temple University in Philadelphia and Donal O'Shea, the president of New College in Florida, in Sarasota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.