Monster: How Higher Education Continues to Reach New Lows

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

At a time when many of us are (consistently) questioning why higher education costs so much comes a report that the University of Cambridge is implementing a $332,000 doctoral degree in business. As reprinted in, Cambridge is planning on a new four-year doctor of business for October 2017. I am not sure why anyone would want to earn a doctorate in business, per se, since going to school for that long a period is almost antithetical to what “business” is about, but why digress with a thoughtful question? The article reports that the degree is aimed at senior leaders and expects classes of one to two students per year. That’s a pretty good student/instructor ratio, I’m thinking.

Before I, or anyone else, criticize this move by such a prestigious institution, it is worth understanding that other similarly prestigious institutions have been doing something similar for years via MBA programs. Only a few years ago, Montreal’s McGill University (read my Swail Letter on McGill from 2011) raised its MBA tuition to $79,500, a rise of 90 percent from its previous charges. The Fuqua School of Business at Duke charges $63,600/year. Harvard MBA? $64,000/year. Harvard’s estimate for total cost of attendance is $102,100 per year.

And those examples only represent the MBA programs. The “Executive” MBA programs are the real collectors of wealth for institutions. At Fuqua, the executive MBA—a relatively short-term program—is $135,000. Their “weekend” executive MBA is $122,500 and involves alternating weekends over the course of four terms across 19 months. The very prestigious Executive MBA program at the Wharton Business School (University of Pennsylvania) is a measly $172,200. At Harvard, I’m not sure what the cost is, because on their “Fees, Payments, & Cancellations” they talk about all of those things—except for the fees and payments. I am sure that is a simple oversight on their part.

So why do these institutions do this? Well, for several reasons, with the first and foremost being that—quite simply—they can. These schools are crystal clear on who they are and what they can get away with. On the philosophical side, these are very well-known universities that develop some of the world’s most influential business and science people. They are selling not only seminars with some of these influencers, but, in reality, access to an ultra-select network of some of the world’s most elite thinkers and doers. These institutions are banking on their reputation and the reality that there are people that will pay almost anything to get the imprimatur of a Harvard, Duke, or Cambridge. It is a model that works.

The problem with this practice, beyond the obvious selling out of higher education, is that there is an element of moral corruptitude to it all. Instead of living the philosophy of open access, these institutions have shifted the other way, becoming even more exclusive and shutting the doors to people with financial need, which, in these cases, would be almost “everyone.” Trust me, if you have the wherewithal to pay the tuition fees at these institutions, you would not need to go.

So who does enroll in these programs? Extremely well-positioned, high-level employees whose companies are glad to pay the hostile fees in exchange for an entrée to a very exclusive fraternity. Individuals never pay these fees. Corporations do.

But the problem isn’t that these institutions run these programs and trade off their imprimatur in the name of free-market enterprise. Rather, it is the impact on other institutions at a secondary level. Those schools who are not quite at the zenith of the higher education world but are still extremely selective and high cost. They look at these institutions and programs just as a younger brother looks to his older brother. They want to be just like them!

So they start their own high-cost executive programs. William & Mary has one that costs about $92,000. The University of Maryland? $117,000. The University of Texas at Austin? $113,000. George Mason University? $81,600.

A lot of dough.

And this is the monster we have created in higher education. Higher education, writ large, has become the manifestation of a Macbethian drive for more. They all want to be like the one above them, where fundraising is the pinnacle of activities and student service is among the lower rungs of priorities. Is that a broad brush to use for all of higher education. Sure. Guilty. But for our four-year institutions, at a minimum, this is the name of the game. More.

Let’s be clear: all of these institutions are supported, in part or by large, through taxpayer funds. These funds come either through direct government subsidy, student financial aid, or research and development funds from government contracts. An upcoming Swail Letter will talk about why we need to consider focusing public funds on public institutions, instead of forcing those same institutions into the lions’ den with the highly-selective, private institutions.

But this trend that pushes higher education into vastly different spaces based on money is disturbing. It makes higher education “dirty,” to a degree. Greedy to a large extent. Higher education, in the end, is about the public good. Some would like to argue about the “business” of higher education, but in the end, the ROI of higher education should be measured on how much public good an institution returns for the public investment that is extracted. Trustees and other stakeholders, including elected officials, should look very carefully at what institutions are doing.


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