Higher education is up against a myriad of challenges, as their student enrollments decline, their budgets tighten up or remain stagnant, and there’s a greater demand to prove the value of their degree programs. As prospective students and parents are weighing the college options, the conversation around cost keeps getting tougher. College student debt is still spiraling. In the past year, seven in 10 graduating seniors had student loans from public and nonprofit colleges, with an average of $30,100 per borrower, marking a 4-percent increase from the average college student debt reported in 2014.[1]

Understanding The Iron Triangle

College and university presidents often refer to the “iron triangle” dilemma in higher ed, which points to cost, quality, and access existing in a mutually locked-in relationship, so that changing one factor will inevitably impact the rest. Under this assumption, an institution with tough admission requirements and high tuition is a good institution, regardless of anything else.

However, not everyone agrees with this perspective. As far back as the 1990s, six out of 10 government and business leaders believed that colleges needed to become leaner and more efficient. More than half of the public (56 percent) do not accept this idea that colleges need to spend more to maintain academic quality. And much of the public also believe that colleges can enroll a lot more students without having to increase their tuition.[2]

What the Research Says

For years, the research behind the relationship between spending and educational success has been inconclusive. However, a new K-12 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, examining school district spending across 26 states, supports the belief that spending does improve education. There was a consistent pattern showing that over comparable time frames, states that send additional money to their lowest-income districts saw more academic achievement than those that didn’t.[3]

The Next Level of Change

There are several who believe a drastic shift is needed, in order to make education less costly. Higher education has problems in its infrastructure and curriculum design that stand in the way of effective change. The challenge lies with faculty and department heads as they rethink their instructional approaches on a much larger scale.

It is also key for colleges to invest in a learning infrastructure and building the right culture for innovative changes to the curriculum to endure. A recent study from Eduventures identified three major barriers that academic leaders will need to overcome in the coming years: initiative fatigue, an absence of accountability, and diffusion of responsibility. Transformation will require collaboration across many departments and roles in the institution.[4]


[1] The Institute for College Access & Success. Student Debt and The Class of 2015, 11th Annual Report, Oct 2016. http://ticas.org/posd/map-state-data

[2] The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Public Agenda. The Iron Triangle: College Presidents Talk About Costs, Access and Quality, Oct 2008. http://www.publicagenda.org

[3] Carey, Kevin, and Harris, Elizabeth. “It Turns Out Spending More Probably Does Improve Education,” New York Times, 12 Dec 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/12/nyregion/it-turns-out-spending-more-probably-does-improve-education.html

[4] Mintz, Steven. “Breaking the Iron Triangle,” Inside Higher Ed. 5 Oct 2016. http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/higher-ed-gamma/breaking-iron-triangle