09 August, 2012

Can the Lutherans Lead with Price--and Education?

The second annual Education Department reports on college tuition costs are out. Leading the pack again is Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, at over $42K per annum. That's tuition alone. Go figure. There are, of course, low price leaders as well. Berea College in Kentucky, for example, has $910 per annum tuition cost. All students there are on work study. That means they mow the diamond they play ball on and sweep and clean the halls their rooms are on. I imagine it's as or more tidy than most other private college residential halls. 

Which raises the question: can, or could, Lutherans deliver a higher education that is Lutheran and has Lutheranism at its core and lead the pack in low price? I'm not certain it's possible to scrape along the bottom like Berea, but who knows? There are just a few simple things a college needs: a place, a faculty, a curriculum, the bare wherewithal to administer it, and students. 

So how to address each of these to maximize benefit and maximize cost reduction? 

Place: there are many small towns and many environs outside of small towns that would welcome the purchase of 40 acres or the purchase, renovation, and occupancy of some older buildings downtown. Of course, it wouldn't do much directly for their tax base, but it would bring in traffic. I think the small town or rural solution holds a great deal of promise in meeting the challenge of the cost of place. And there are creative and interesting ways to build nice--not extravagant, but nice--buildings at a reasonable cost. Then there are those once thriving now sputtering religious communities....

Faculty: a good, committed, teacherly and scholarly faculty, teaching and studying at the heart of the Wittenberg way is not difficult to pull together. Today in our country we have an embarrassment of Ph.D.s, and the Lutherans aren't lacking. Ironically, however, just as so many Lutherans went off to read in disciplines at the heart of Lutheranism because they are at the heart of Lutheranism--history, the Western humanities, philosophy, theology, New and Old Testament, classics, rhetoric--the colleges in the last four decades have retreated from the disciplines at the heart of Lutheranism. What used to be central has become peripheral, and what used to be left to the so-called state university system (not the flagships, but the regional universities) has now become the bread and butter of the Lutheran colleges. The point is, the faculty are out there. The pay they demand, especially if the location's right, will often be below market, and with the right student:faculty ratio, fielding a solid core of Lutheran faculty at the heart of the Lutheran disciplines will not be difficult. I hate to put price tags on these things, but I think it's reasonable to think that $75K-$85K per annum package--salary + benefits--would be adequate remuneration. 

Curriculum: that's partly because there's no need for a Byzantine curriculum. A tight curriculum, with no or virtually no electives, that serves the purpose of producing, as we've said elsewhere, a theologically conversant, eloquent, and learned laity and clergy (this is the Church's interest in higher ed), not only serves students best, it keeps down costs. It eliminates administrative difficulties. It might, in fact, eliminate student recruitment costs--such an institution simply draws by reputation, and draws, at the end of the day, only those who want what it has to give. 

Administrative wherewithal: the reduction in administrative costs is gained on the back of a simplified, but rigorous, curriculum and a faculty made capable of administration by this simplicity. 

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