Bargain U: My fantasy of the $1000 college

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Wherever I go, I tend to fantasize about business models and efficiency. I’m unsure why. I’m not a perfectionist by any stretch. While I’m not usually a procrastinator, and my attention to detail is solid, I’m not uptight, ultra-organized or dictatorial. I’m no Donald Trump, and my bank account proves it.

But, for example, if I’m in the bagel store, I’ll wonder why each worker has to not only take the order, but organize it and ring it up. This creates either a logjam at the register or, other times, leaves the counter totally unattended while the workers are rushing around. A line forms. Some people leave. Others won’t come back next time due to the frustration. Wouldn’t a better model be having one person — the one best with numbers — whose sole job is to work the register, then a cook and some runners to expedite the orders? A separation of duties? This would seem most efficient, and profitable. Think Ray Kroc.

A few months ago, I was sitting at a conference full of college assessment people and, between speakers, I started to do my fantasy number crunching. I counted the rows of chairs in the auditorium, mostly full, and multiplied by the number of chairs in each row. I figured the average person in the room earned $70,000 plus benefits. Then I wondered, how much could colleges save right off the bat if all of these people were fired? (Though, longterm, good assessment people SAVE a college money.)

Then I went further. Say a college got rid of all administration except the top dog and a skeletal staff. Say only adjuncts were hired to teach. Could such a business model work?

Now, granted, this idea would never be accepted by accreditation bodies, unions, etc., but I bet it would be wildly popular among students and parents.

I came up with a college that would only cost $1000 a year. Tell me you wouldn’t drop your current school to attend this college. Read on…

The $1000 college would only accept 1000 students. There would be no financial aid, which requires a whole cadre of financial aid administrators to process, raising costs. If a student can’t come up with $1000, he’s probably not college material anyway. That’s only a few weeks working at Starbucks. The $1000 tuition would be non-refundable, as this whole business model relies on all 1000 students paying.

There would be no admissions process. Students with 1000 SAT (combined Math-Verbal) or better would be picked by lottery to attend, though, racial makeup must be comparable to that of the larger community. A computer randomization program can determine the right numbers.

The lottery could be an “event,” like the NBA lottery or when Willie Wonka gave out the golden tickets. Rev up the excitement. Yolanda Vega could read the winning lotto balls on WPIX.

With no real admissions process and with racial diversity assured (take that, Harvard!), no admissions or diversity staff are needed. (The 1000 SAT number is negotiable. It just seems to fit in with the No. 1000-theme.)

There would be no amenities. No bookstore. No gym. No cafe. No library. Those all require staff. Professors will have to assign books that can be easily found for under $25 (they may be older editions, on The campus building should be near a public library, a bookstore, a YMCA and restaurants. So many small and medium sized cities in America have empty buildings that would work perfectly as a main campus. Perhaps the building could be donated by the city, taxes waived. A thousand college kids would be a boon to that local economy. The politicians would love it.

Most public colleges in this state seem to be built in the burbs on land that was, at one time, cheap, thus they need to have amenities so the students have the resources needed to thrive. But a campus in a downtown could just rely on typical city assets.

So, what’s $1000 times 1000 students? A cool million annually.

Pay the president $100,000 or so. That leaves about $900,000. He or she will need a capable right-hand ($70,000). Give that person a clerical helper ($30,000). That’s another $100,000. We’re down to $800,000.

Average class size is 20. So 50 classes are needed each semester — or 100 for the year. If the adjuncts get the typical $3000/course, that’s $300,000. That leaves $500,000. Way more than enough money for heat, electric, insurance and a private cleaning company. Even rent could be afforded, if the college weren’t lucky enough to get the building donated.

I’d even suggest paying the adjuncts $5000. That’s more than practically any college or university. With that pay, the $1000 college would be able to attract the best professors from area universities to moonlight. So that leaves $300,000, roughly, for regular expenses. That should do the trick.

The college would have some quirks. For example, every student must take and pass exactly 15 credits each semester; each course would be three credits. It would take exactly 120 credits to graduate. Failed courses would have to be made up at another college, perhaps. Students who take more than four years to graduate screw up the business model, as that holds up a seat that could be going to a new freshman.

There would be no courses that offer specific job training. Those cost money for equipment. For example, a culinary course requires ovens, food, etc. Instead, courses will be more classical in nature — great books, political thought, pre-calc, statistics, history, composition. Logic, rationality, problem solving, analytical thought and writing will be the skills stressed. Those invaluable skills don’t cost much to be learned. No fancy equipment needed. And the best employers want thinkers, not machines.

All courses will be pass/fail. A few other colleges, such as Sarah Lawrence, do this. If you’re lucky enough to get in, you’ll work hard to pass. No specific grading rubric needed. Professors will submit the verdicts online and computers will do all the work, generating letters for those students who are in poor standing.

All majors will be only 36 credits with a core curriculum of 12 credits (a science, a math, freshman comp and freshman lit), allowing students lots of flexibility with electives. This will also allow the $1000 college the flexibility to help students graduate in four years. What courses a student should take will be very clearly spelled out, so he doesn’t really need an academic counselor. The president or his right-hand person could act as referee should a student have an issue; say he wanted to substitute an anthropology for a sociology course. The president will have hired the adjuncts, and selected the courses, so should have a grasp of the subjects to be able to decide.

(And why not have some fun subjects? At $5000 a course, perhaps the CEO of a bank could be convinced to teach a course on wealth, the editor in chief of a major daily paper on emerging journalism trends, an award-winning film director on Fellini.)

See, it’s all quite possible that a $1000 college could exist, and be decent.

Yeah, eventually, the students might demand a lacrosse team, or someone will get hurt and public safety may be an added department. And don’t forget inflation. Slowly, tuition will rise.

And if the president and his or her skeletal staff are weak, the whole organization could fall apart. It would take special people to make this happen.

One might also ask if a $1000/year B.A./B.S. degree would be taken seriously by employers. I can’t see why not. Most employers will hire from any college at the entry-level position, and then it’s up to the employee to prove him or herself and move up the ladder.

And it’s easier to move up the ladder if you’re not weighed down by tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.

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