How to Control College Costs in 2023 and Beyond

Part one of a back-to-basics Martin Center symposium.

[Editor’s note: Recently, the Martin Center asked some of our favorite contributors to write micro-essays on the prompt, “How can the U.S. get college costs under control in 2023 and beyond?” Part one of the resulting symposium follows below. To read part two, please click here.]


The college-costs question invites a raft of sensible responses. But I’m a simple guy, and I’ll offer a simple place to start: Students, teachers, and staff should be expected to work harder. If students worked harder, they’d finish faster. If faculty taught more frequently, we wouldn’t need as many instructors.

Last winter, a survey of four-year college students found that 64 percent said they put “a lot of effort” into school. Of these self-described hard workers, less than a third devoted even 10 hours a week to studying. A decade ago, in Academically Adrift, NYU’s Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa reported that students spent 12 to 14 hours a week studying, a decline of roughly 50 percent from a few decades earlier. We’ve normalized a college culture where 12 hours of class and another 10 to 12 hours of studying constitute a full week’s work. On the other hand, in Great Britain, the University of Cambridge expects students to devote 42 to 46 hours a week to “academic studies.” If American students worked a 40-hour week, they could complete their studies in two-thirds the time—and at two-thirds the cost.

If students worked harder, they’d finish faster. If faculty taught more frequently, we wouldn’t need as many instructors.And it’s no coincidence that the nation’s most expensive colleges are those where faculty teach just two to four courses a year: one or two in the fall and the same in the spring. This amounts to three or six hours a week of teaching for 24 weeks a year and the occasional office hour, with most time devoted to bureaucratic work, research of uneven provenance, or griping about campus parking. John McGreevy, the provost at Notre Dame, has observed that at his institution, the norm in whole departments is a 1-1 teaching load (that is, professors only teach one class per semester). Teaching loads at the leading colleges have shrunk, he notes, because colleges today compete for faculty by promising they’ll teach less.

Meanwhile, at less expensive community colleges and regional institutions, faculty routinely teach four courses each semester or more. If higher education adopted as a norm the notion that faculty should actually teach 10 or more hours a week (at least half the year), it would boost the number of available classes even while reducing the requisite number of faculty.

Why isn’t all of this more widely discussed? Well, higher education seems to make a concerted effort to avoid publicly issuing these kinds of figures. Heck, the Association for the Study of Higher Education shows zero results when one searches for information relating to topics such as “faculty teaching loads” or “college course loads.”

At a time when fewer than two-in-three students complete four-year degrees in six years, and when students can’t graduate because they can’t find a professor to teach a necessary course, simply applying some elbow grease and accelerating time-to-degree holds out the potential to markedly reduce the cost of college.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Great School Rethink (Harvard Education Press, 2023).



The typical American college student can expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars per year pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The average in-state, public-university tuition rate tops $10,000, whereas private institutions average over $40,000 per year. Most students sign on to this price tag from a position of economic precarity, requiring them to take out loans for the promised return of a well-paying career. Few realize at the time that barely half of the classes they will be paying for over the next four to six years are of any functional advantage to that career.

The typical undergraduate degree program comes with a long list of mandatory “General Education” classes that must be completed in order to graduate. Gen Eds usually comprise at least a third of the coursework for a bachelor’s degree, if not more, and they typically dominate the first two years of the college experience.

Students complete gen-ed courses not because they impart knowledge, but because they are mandatory boxes to check.The ostensible purpose behind Gen Eds is to produce a well-rounded student who learns critical-thinking skills and attains basic proficiency in a wide range of subjects before going on to specialized classes in a major of his or her choosing. While that goal remains a lofty ideal, it is almost never realized in the curriculum that most colleges offer. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa documented in their groundbreaking book Academically Adrift, most undergraduates learn very little in the Gen-Ed portion of their education. Students complete these courses not because they impart knowledge, but because they are mandatory boxes to check on the route to a degree.

Not surprisingly, subjects that have trouble attracting student majors in their own right enjoy an outsized presence on the Gen-Ed curriculum. These classes tend to be humanities-heavy, with English literature, writing composition, and foreign languages dominating the course requirements. Such disciplines also tend to be the most politically skewed units of the university, with classes that are more likely to dwell upon “social-justice” activism than the texts of Shakespeare, the history of the United States, or the skills of writing a coherent and logical argument. Many colleges have recently pushed Gen Eds even further to the left by adding mandatory coursework in “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” as a requirement of graduation.

While a case remains for restoring a classical liberal-arts component to the bachelor’s degree, the unfortunate reality is that many course offerings in this area amount to little more than low-rigor ideological activism. In effect, many modern Gen-Ed requirements exist to provide job security for faculty in bloated and hyper-politicized departments with declining enrollment.

Despite the deficit of demonstrable returns in learning, the Gen-Ed curriculum has become a significant driver of costs in higher ed. Students who rightly view these courses as “blow-off” classes and a mere hoop to jump through before graduation must nonetheless foot the bill of several thousand dollars per credit, usually at the same tuition rate as the classes they take in their chosen major. Gen Eds also extend the length of degree programs, increasing not only the tuition price tag but also the cost of housing and other fees, as well as the financial sacrifice of delayed entry into the workforce. Contrast that with many European universities, where students choose a major at the outset and finish their degree in three years.

Insofar as Gen Eds are currently failing at their stated purpose, reforming this component of our university system is an obvious candidate for reducing the cost of college for most students.

Phillip W. Magness is senior research faculty and F.A. Hayek Chair at the American Institute for Economic Research.



Here is a proposal to cut college costs that has the added benefit of enhancing student learning. The idea is this: a no-tech semester for every student in freshman and sophomore years. “No-tech” means that students do all their work the old-fashioned way. No digital formats. They read real books and write papers by hand. They use blue books for exams; they comb the shelves of the library, not Google. They don’t email their teachers; they go to their offices. No laptops in class. If students wish to keep their digital lives going in private time, they must use their own service providers. The school system is closed to them during the entire semester.

I don’t know how much schools spend on digital technology. I don’t know how much the reduced usage will save the schools. The amount can’t be insignificant, though. If a school can slow the replacement of computers because of the decreased usage, that’s a savings. If it doesn’t need as many tech-service personnel, that’s a savings. Things aren’t broken or stolen as often. Fewer downloads and apps on the system. That’s got to help the bottom line.

“No-tech” means that students do all their work the old-fashioned way.Best of all, as costs go down, learning goes up. Kids who take notes on paper comprehend and retain lecture material better than do kids who use a keyboard. Writing improves, too. Reading print is easier than reading on a screen (the physical structure of a book helps readers relate parts to the whole more effectively). And what a blessing it is for 19-year-olds to drop the devices—to disengage from an instrument that binds them to teen culture and peer pressure, stupefying games and video fare.

I can imagine an admissions dean hearing this proposal and blurting: “What! Nobody will come if we do that!” He’s wrong. The competition for students at the present time is fierce. Lesser liberal-arts colleges are desperate. I can think of no better way to create a fresh brand and draw more applicants than by standing loudly against the digital tide. There may be more 17-year-olds sick of the screen and ready for an escape than we realize.

Mark Bauerlein is emeritus professor of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things magazine. His most recent book is The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults



The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has the dubious distinction of having produced this century’s greatest business failure: Alissa Heinerscheid, the Harvard/Wharton grad who single-handedly destroyed one of America’s iconic brands in the space of several weeks early this year.

While Theranos CEO and billionaire Elizabeth Holmes, now behind bars, destroyed her own brand and bilked investors out of more than $900 million dollars, Heinerscheid was hired, promoted, and paid by Anheuser-Busch, the company whose brand she crippled. She was vice-president of marketing for Bud Light, America’s most popular beer, before she applied her Wharton business education to the brand.

Heinerscheid violated the most fundamental principles of marketing in order to pursue a marginal social agenda. She wanted to make the brand more “inclusive,” when branding is about establishing exclusivity and marketing to particular customer segments. She was/is obviously a victim of the au courant notion that, if you use the word “inclusive,” it can justify most anything you want to do, no matter how absurd. This type of bolt-on politicized program is like an abnormal growth on an otherwise healthy organism. We’ve seen the pathology accelerating in higher education for the past two decades, particularly in schools of education.

Much good might come from the abolition of DEI programs and the shifting of resources to other more rigorous venues.The universities have changed a great deal in the last 20 years, particularly in the character of the bureaucracies, which are now staffed mainly by graduates of our abysmal education schools—“advanced”-degree-holders in “educational leadership,” “student affairs,” and other such nonsense. The damage done by these bureaucrats is immeasurable, as they harass and harangue students outside of class time in a round-the-clock process of what they call “milieu management.” Much good might come from the abolition of these programs and the shifting of resources to other more rigorous venues in the university. We might even cut a few millions from the bottom line.

But if Heinerscheid is any indication, the social-justice agenda is extending into business schools. Even as Wharton produced the marketing bonehead who destroyed one of America’s iconic beer brands in a matter of weeks, the school now offers a new MBA program that actually appears to be modeled on the Bud Light disaster. Wharton, which produced Heinerscheid, is doubling down on this type of posture with a new, valueless MBA program—Heinerscheid redux.

The program is called the “MBA Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Major,” and, from what can be determined from the program description, it offers no value-added to any firm that hires one of its graduates. In fact, given that the program is grounded in the type of social engineering that Heinerscheid applied at Bud Light, it’s likely that firms will ultimately regret having any association with it. It launches this fall—have a look and judge for yourself whether the program has “money pit” written all over it.

Is this a good business decision by a business school? Or is it a sop to bring in marginal students duped by ideology? As one of my colleagues remarks, “Let’s find out what the finance students think about the new ‘diversity MBA’ cohort.”

Stanley K. Ridgley, Ph.D., IMBA, is clinical full professor at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business. He is a former military intelligence officer with a Ph.D. from Duke University and has taught in Russia, China, India, Spain, and Colombia. He is the author of Brutal Minds: The Dark World of Left-Wing Brainwashing in Our Universities.