What are colleges doing to cut costs, amid budget constraints and public concerns over skyrocketing student debt in America? For years, colleges have looked to a number of options to contain the costs, rather than bumping up tuition prices. In many cases, departments have put a freeze on hiring, which in turn increases general faculty workloads and without an increase in pay. The programs with the lowest performance get cut. College administrators have also squeezed IT budgets, outsourced apps and storage technologies, and pushed some of the costs onto students.

To continue from our last post about the “iron triangle,” we’re taking a look at a few ways how colleges and universities are increasing the quality of college courses without increasing spending.

Embrace Online Courses and Programs

Online courses enable colleges to enroll and serve more students than before, as they’re not limited by physical space limitations. And aside from instruction-related costs, the online model is able to lower or completely slash textbook and overhead costs per course. There is evidence that virtual instruction can be as good or even more effective than on-campus teaching. At the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, they found that 96 percent of the school’s online students completed their courses and 89 percent of their online master’s students earned their degrees in three years.[1]

Make the Most of High-Cost Assets

Classrooms and labs are examples of the assets with a high price to build, maintain, and expand. As the demand rises or falls, it is difficult to easily change these resources. The blended learning model is one of the most promising options for the future of higher education. While there is some perceived risk of success with taking a course online, blended learning takes the best of both formats to maximize student learning. This will reduce face-to-face seat time and make use of a digital learning platform that will result in a cost-effective solution for colleges.

Use More Open Educational Resources

There are millions of valuable resources that are freely available for teachers and professors – complete courses, modules, video lectures, books, quizzes, audio, and more – and would eliminate the hundreds of dollars in textbook costs that students are paying for now. Since 2006, the cost of a college textbook has increased by 73 percent, which is four times the rate of inflation, leaving students budgeting for $1,200 a year for their college textbooks. Open educational resources (OER) are underused in classrooms, but have proven to be high quality and even more effective than traditional texts. And while traditional textbooks could take years before an updated version is available, OER can provide up-to-date textbooks and curricula to meet new academic standards.[2]

Shift Costs from Fixed to Variable

As mentioned above, CIOs on campus are using outsourced services to stretch their IT budgets. This includes pushing campus technology services out of campus data centers and into the cloud for significant savings. In meeting classroom technology needs for faculty, they are also shifting learning management systems, grading, interactive assessments, and other teaching tools into the cloud, in order to make the most cost-effective investments in innovative technologies. Although this means giving up local control, the outsourcing approach helps create more flexibility and allows you to pay for what you actually use.

Share Data on University Costs

In recent years, business officers on campus have noted that their college or university hasn’t been able to effectively use data to inform their decision-making. Across the institution, there is valuable data that can be shared to improve financial efficiency of their academic programs. While many focus on graduation rates and overall budgets, there is a greater need to gather metrics about the efficiency of certain administrative or spending practices. Analytic technologies could offer more transparency for academic leaders, measuring the effectiveness of their classroom tools and course content through the year. Plus, if universities could see comparisons with other universities, they’d be able to see where their numbers fall.


[1] Ubell, Robert. “Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online,” Inside Higher Ed, 13 Dec 2016. Link

[2] Weisbaum, Herb. “Students Are Still Saddled with Soaring Textbook Costs, Report Says,” NBC News, 10 Feb 2016. Link