Build Your Own College

Vance Fried is a down-to-earth, plain-speaking business school professor from Oklahoma State University. He doesn’t think much of the academic mindset. “Colleges today are focused on serving the Ivory Tower, not their students,” he writes in his new book, Better/Cheaper College: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Rescuing the Undergraduate Education Industry. He wants to change that mentality by inspiring entrepreneurs to start new colleges.

His book builds on a paper, “The $7,376 Ivies,” that he wrote for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. It showed how to provide better education than most students get now, at a price of less than $8,000 per year (compared with about $27,000 for tuition and fees at today’s private colleges). The paper is reproduced as an appendix to Better/Cheaper College, and the new book places his school in the context of university barriers to innovation and a plea to entrepreneurs to overcome those barriers or go around them.

Fried says that colleges and universities today are run by a self-interested “ivory tower collective” (ITC) of faculty and administrators. This collective serves its members rather than students, largely because colleges lack actual ownership and have abdicated responsibility for moral education. Serving the ITC’s goals means carrying out the collective’s preference for “learning for learning’s sake” regardless of its cost or relevance to life outside the academy.

This mantra, “learning for learning’s sake,” ends up being “learning about what I’m interested in,” according to Fried. That means students learn disconnected and often trivial information the professor is absorbed in. Such education is not what most students want—or what employers want in the graduates they hire.

Fried contends that learning for learning’s sake is inconsistent with what John Milton meant when he described a good education as one that “fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” Nor is it consistent with Thomas Jefferson’s writing about the purposes of higher education, such as “[t]o develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order.”

The “founding purpose” of American higher education, says Fried, was “to provide students with learning so that they might lead a better life, both for their own benefit and that of society.” The ITC doesn’t understand that or act on it.

The thrust of Better/Cheaper College is that the ivory tower isn’t going to change on its own. Fried calls upon entrepreneurs to rejuvenate or start colleges, and he tells them how.

His book is refreshing. Whether Fried is describing his school or explaining what’s wrong with existing schools, he doesn’t mince words. He has no use for endowments, for example, which he thinks perpetuate the worst characteristics of today’s colleges and universities. He understands what Howard R. Bowen said in the 1980s and Robert E. Martin in 2009 about the reasons behind most schools’ rising costs. He summarizes these points as “colleges raise all the money they can, and spend all the money they can raise.”

Exactly who will take up Fried’s challenge isn’t entirely clear. Fried suggests that some existing colleges will be forced by financial conditions to make dramatic changes. Many look profitable now but are “strategically bankrupt” and not sustainable over the long run at the prices they are charging. Some, he says, could partner with for-profit companies when they get into financial trouble. Another proposal is the creation of a private or charter college operating on the better/cheaper model within a larger university. 

Whoever takes up the gauntlet, whether it is trustees who want to move their school in a “better/cheaper” direction or entrepreneurs starting entirely new schools, they will have to eliminate, consolidate, or avoid academic programs that are a drain on revenue. “The issue today isn’t figuring out how to cut costs, rather it is actually doing it,” Fried writes.

He offers as a model his proposed college, the College of Entrepreneurial Leadership and Society (CELS). This residential school of about 3200 students would combine vocational, technical, and general education, and he lays out precisely the majors that would be offered and the roles that various faculty (professors, teaching fellows, and senior tutors) would play. It would cost just $7,736 per year, and Fried estimates the personnel costs down to the salaries and number of secretaries.

Fried is careful to say that there are many “value propositions” possible in creating a new college. But there is one “don’t”: Don’t go after the highly selective “exclusive” market. The parents seeking those schools aren’t interested in value, just prestige. A “better/cheaper” college will have no appeal to them. He advises entrepreneurs: 1) Be sure you can deliver what you promise; 2) Don’t spend money on values that your market doesn’t want (research is one); and 3) Expect students to work; don’t make college too easy. 

I hope that entrepreneurs will heed his advice and start some inexpensive schools.  Fried’s overall concept, his rationale, and the comprehensive framework underlying a “good value” school are inspiring, and he has applied solid business knowledge to university operations.

Unfortunately, many people who should read this book probably will never hear of it. One reason is that Fried’s good sense and enthusiasm are not matched by the quality of the published product.

Better/Cheaper College is not issued by a trade-book publisher but by a higher education reform institute, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. That would be all right, since the center has some influence, but only if the center had insisted on the professional standards that are increasingly expected of important books, even self-published ones.

The layout, design, and editing of Better/Cheaper College are far too casual. The book has uneven page margins, inconsistent typefaces, and blank pages inappropriately scattered throughout. It has grammatical and typographical errors. While the book is certainly readable, the editing of the text shows lapses such as too-long excerpts, weak organization, and in one chapter a confusing effort to integrate management strategies with higher-education applications. Those flaws are likely to prevent the book from getting the attention it deserves, which is most unfortunate.

Perhaps, however, entrepreneurs of the kind Fried is looking for will not be turned off by those failings. If they can ignore the somewhat slipshod publication style, there’s a powerful message inside waiting for them. It is summarized by Fried’s concluding statement: “Now Is the Time to Start.”