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Tackling Higher Education Costs

By Dan Hanson

When Widener undergraduates in Dr. Wes Leckrone’s classes talk about tuition, they aren’t simply grumbling about the cost of college—they are trying to do something about it.

Leckrone, an associate professor of political science, and students in his introductory American Government course in fall 2012 established a Super PAC—a new version of political action committee that supports causes—titled College Students Concerned by College Costs. In his spring 2013 course, Politics, Policy, and Higher Education, students continued the committee's work by researching the issue of college costs and developing content for the website

Students with Senator PileggiThe students visited the state capitol in Harrisburg in April to lobby lawmakers in support of the Middle Income Student Debt Reduction Act, a proposal that would make more state grants available for middle-income students. They tracked down busy state representatives and senators, trying to get a few minutes of their time to gain support for the bills supporting the act. The students met with 11 lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi and Andy Dinniman, minority chair of the Senate Committee on Education. "We were able to share our opinions about higher education bills and let our voices be heard," said Andrea Stickley, a political science major from Norristown, Pennsylvania. "As a student with ambitions of working with government to enact important change, especially when it comes to the cost of higher education, I am happy that I took the time to visit Harrisburg and learn more about legislative politics."

Leckrone said his students learned much about the complexity of the issues of higher education funding, and that the trip to Harrisburg was an enlightening experience to real-world problems. "They learned that it wasn't an amateurs' game," he said.

The project by Leckrone's classes is just one of several by Widener undergraduate and graduate students focused on the issue of college costs. Leckrone's classes, a Business Analytics class, and doctoral students in the graduate higher education program were part of a national collaborative undergraduate research study on the cost of higher education. The group study is being conducted by Widener and three other members of the New American Colleges and Universities (NAC&U), a national consortium of selective, small to mid-size independent colleges and universities dedicated to the purposeful integration of liberal education, professional studies, and civic engagement.

Participants were tasked with researching the questions: What are the true costs of a college education, and why do costs keep rising at private, non-profit institutions? Dr. Loyd Bastin, coordinator of undergraduate research, and Provost Stephen C. Wilhite structured Widener's contribution to the research to include an advocacy perspective, a business perspective, and a higher education perspective.

Widener was the only school in the project to form a Super PAC and involve doctoral students in the research. "The Widener students and faculty really took hold of the project," said NAC&U President Nancy Hensel, who spearheaded the project's focus on college costs. "I was really pleased with what Widener did. They were enthusiastic and they took risks. I think they were really good about seeing the possibility of this type of research."
Dr. Timothy M. Sullivan, director of Widener's graduate programs in higher education, said the sharing of information between undergraduate and graduate students and faculty from different schools at Widener added a dynamic element to the project. "It really exposed us to different ways of thinking that I found both helpful and exciting," he said.

A Report for the President
While Leckrone's undergraduates were busy forming their own Super PAC and lobbying in Harrisburg, two doctoral students enrolled in Sullivan's Scholar Practitioner Leadership Project course tackled the topic with a different approach. Catherine DeHart, director of planned giving at Widener, and Mitch Murtha, director of judicial affairs at Northampton Community College, created a hypothetical scenario in which they were serving on the staff of a private university where the president assigned them to prepare a brief addressing the issues of college costs. DeHart and Murtha delved into data and recent scholarship on the project and quickly discovered why the complex issue has been so difficult for colleges and universities to address. "So many colleges do things in different ways," Murtha said. "We were just trying to wrap our heads around it. It's a very elusive topic."

Despite the challenges presented by the issue, DeHart and Murtha developed a number of recommendations: linking endowments more closely to an institution's mission; evaluating and assessing how tuition is determined and practicing transparency in communications about costs; assessing high expense areas such as instruction and academic support to measure efficiency; and developing transparent budget and accounting practices to show how revenue and expenses are allocated within the institution's budget. Their bottom line was that schools cannot continue the status quo. "Private institutions of higher education cannot continue to operate as they have," DeHart and Murtha wrote.

Inside the Numbers
A third group of students, undergraduates in the School of Business Administration, took a purely statistical approach to the issue, focusing on college spending. Dr. Richard Goeke's Business Analytics class analyzed the relationship between tuition and five of the largest expense categories in higher education: faculty salaries, administrative counts, research and public service, buildings, and athletics.

The students researched data available over a ten-year period from the NCAA and the Delta Cost Project, an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to help improve college affordability by controlling costs and improving productivity. They focused only on private colleges and universities, but the amount of data left to analyze still consisted of a spreadsheet with 932 columns and 16,000 rows. "It was a lot of work for these students to understand what data was where, to work around missing data, and to fix anomalies in the data," said Goeke, an associate professor of business administration.

After working through the challenges presented by the massive amount of data and how it was represented, the students found that each of the cost areas explained a significant portion of the variance in the cost of tuition when measured in isolation. However, two of the equations—administrative costs and research and public service—produced dubious results.

Troubled by the suspect results, Goeke decided to add another variable to the equation—time, which acted as a proxy for inflation. When calendar years were included as a variable, Goeke found that the passage of time was the single most influential factor in explaining the rise in tuition. "The driver of tuition costs, according to our analyses, was simply moving from one year to the next," Goeke said. "If you look at why tuition went up, it's because it could go up. Each of our hypotheses proved out—faculty salaries, administrative numbers, and research and public service all correlated with the rise in tuition, but the best predictor by far with regard to rise in tuition was our proxy for inflation."

Next Steps
Widener participants in the study feel there is much more research to be done, and faculty plan to continue pursuing the topic with student participation. Goeke is looking to publish the initial findings from his class, but he would like to continue the statistical analysis by comparing schools with high tuition growth to schools with low tuition growth. "We've only opened the lid on this," he said. "There are so many different ways we can go with this data."

Leckrone's students will continue their advocacy efforts, with new students becoming involved in the effort each semester to work with students who launched the Super PAC. "They are willing to come back and mentor new students in the project on their own, which is exciting," he said.

For Sullivan, the purpose of the projects goes above and beyond the issue of the cost of higher education. The fou faculty members involved presented on the collaborative and interdisciplinary structure of the research project at the university's Faculty Professional Development Week as a possible model for other faculty to consider. "One of the most important aspects of this project was getting the students to look at the same questions in different ways and from different perspectives," Sullivan said. "It was a truly collaborative learning experience for both the students and the faculty."

Photo Caption:  In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (front right), met with Widener students and faculty, including political science major Andrea Stickley (back row, second from right), and Associate Professor of political science Wes Leckrone (front left), to discuss bills related to college tuition.