Price discrimination in higher ed

By way of Tyler Cowen we find that it’s going on, of course:

Under the plan, approved by the governing board and believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the two-year college would create a nonprofit foundation to offer such in-demand classes as English and math at a cost of about $200 per unit. Currently, fees are $36 per unit, set by the Legislature for California community college students. That fee will rise to $46 this summer.

So that’s why I’ve been hearing a keening chorus of “It’s so unfaaaaiiiirrrrr!” from the south today.  Here I thought it was just the wind.

As usual I’m given to think about this from a utilitarian perspective.  What’s a greater cost to the student who needs MATH 101 as a prereq for the engineering programme into which they hope to transfer: Taking MATH 101 at a slightly-greater-than 4x price premium this semester, or waiting four months for another section to open up at the set fee (and hope to get a seat in that one, and maybe wait another four months if it fills up too)?  Price discrimination should always be discussed in terms of opportunity cost.  (So should everything else, for that matter.)

If the problem is limited classroom and instructor capacity, there’s a third option: Allow prospective students to test out of community college courses for a nominal fee (say, $20/unit).  This is full of bad, bad, bad incentives for the community college in that it becomes a credentialing agency rather than a Gatekeeper To Knowledge and Custodian Of Young Minds, but who the fuck ascribes the traditional higher-ed virtues to two-year colleges anyway?  If we start to accept that educational institutions are first of all credentialing agencies and — subordinate to that — venues for teaching people who choose to learn in a particular way (structured classroom instruction) decoupling exams from lectures is an obvious step.  Hell, it’s going to happen anyway; Higher Ed might as well try to take on as much of the transition on their own terms as it can manage.


2 Responses to “Price discrimination in higher ed”

  1. 1 kbiel
    March 15, 2012 at 14:09

    decoupling exams from lectures is an obvious step

    I already took advantage of that where I could. I took 7 AP tests when my school only offered classes to cover 4 of the exams. Then I took a department exam during orientation to get my first 4 hours of German out of the way (because the AP test was hard and I sucked at it). It would be nice if I could do that for a lot more subjects (and possibly test out of a complete BS).

    • March 15, 2012 at 14:21

      Yep, I did the same. (I kind of regret testing out of Freshman Comp, though: Getting more “writing with feedback” experience is almost never a bad thing. But at the time I thought I was God’s Gift to the English Language because I didn’t confuse homophones and could sling semicolons properly, so I jumped on the opportunity.)

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