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Professional Opinion

Colleges must innovate to lower costs

Cutting fees, open education resources and tuition guarantees promote affordability
University Business, April 2018
Philip DiStefano is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and board member of the Association of American Universities.
Philip DiStefano is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and board member of the Association of American Universities.

Public higher education has faced significant turning points over the last 70 years. The mid-century GI Bill that cemented higher education’s place as a public good and a private gain is one. Another is the transfer of research from declining corporate labs to university labs in the 1980s, to carry forward technology, health and quality of life innovations.

Now we face another critical turning point. We are gambling with our nation’s future by pricing its brightest young minds out of higher education. The divestment in public higher education has resulted in infinitely rising tuition and fees—far outpacing inflation—to prop up the nation’s public higher education system.

This, in turn, spurs burgeoning student debt that limits accessibility and hinders graduates’ success. We are in effect closing the door on who would otherwise be our nation’s future thinkers, leaders and innovators.

Financial fixes

Student fees have risen 95 percent at four-year universities since 2000, according to a 2016 study by Seton Hall’s Robert Kelchen. Fees make up 20 percent of the tuition bill at the typical four-year public school, Kelchen notes.

Another analysis of 11 premier public universities found nearly 4,000 seniors with good grades at risk of dropping out because they are carrying unpaid balances of less than $1,000.

It’s up to America’s universities, as models of innovation, to make higher education accessible and affordable as an investment in the nation’s future.

The University of Colorado Boulder is taking a major step on this path by eliminating all course-related and program fees beginning in the fall of 2018. This will save students and their families $8.4 million a year.

At CU Boulder, more than 60 fees can range from $1 per credit hour for German and Slavic languages, to $1,255 each semester for graduate clinical speech, language and hearing sciences.

The campus began this effort more than a year ago with the implementation of a four-year tuition guarantee that gave students and their families financial predictability. Importantly, it also enabled the university to look down the financial road far enough to see that it could pick up the tab on course and program fees.

This became possible when the university’s board of regents supported the tuition guarantee. Increased enrollment, along with savings from years of improved campus operating efficiencies, also made the program financially feasible.

Students will still be responsible for mandatory fees for services, such as the recreation center, health services and bus passes.

Nontraditional solutions

Eliminating course and program fees is one step forward, but there is more the campus can do. Last fall, CU Boulder invested in a nontraditional new scholarship program—resulting from a staff innovation competition—that measures a qualified applicant’s persistence to get to college despite economic hardship.

Through funding other scholarships, and the financial education of students, the campus has lowered student debt 14.5 percent since 2013. Moreover, the campus is supporting student leaders in their effort to reduce textbook costs through open education resources.

The goal is to provide openly licensed teaching materials, shared in an electronic format, to students at an extremely discounted rate. The campus will invest up to $1 million in a pilot program.

Removing financial obstacles so students can graduate with minimal debt is a moral imperative and national investment. If our higher education system is to continue bringing diverse, ambitious and creative young minds to the skilled workforce to keep America as a leading innovator, then the nation’s universities must be innovative themselves. 


Philip DiStefano is chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder and board member of the Association of American Universities.