Occupy College Street!

UV Letter - Volume 1, #8

Visiting a university in the UK last week, we stumbled upon this description in the regional guidebook found in the hotel room:

"Another great local attraction is Southwell Workhouse, which is the most complete workhouse in existence. You can discover the true story of what happened to poverty- stricken people during the 19th Century and explore the work yards, day rooms and master's quarters. Imagine the austere, unfurnished rooms. Have a go at oakum picking or doing the laundry. Follow in the path of the paupers."

With UK tuition trebling over the past few years to £9,000 at most universities, UK students may feel like they ought to take a room at this Workhouse. But UK students aren't the only ones feeling poor. Many of their American cousins are paying much higher tuition, increasing at more than twice the rate of inflation over the past 20 years. So it shouldn't be surprising that they're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

In Boston last week, about 200 drum playing students from Northeastern University joined the campus offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, named "Occupy Colleges." Northeastern was only one of 75 colleges where student groups vowed to join the spreading protest. There were 300 students at SUNY Albany, 150 at St. Lawrence University. Their top complaints: rising tuition and student debt.

Students graduating from bachelor’s degree programs with debt are coming out $25,000 in the hole, on average. Remarkably, while Americans are busy paying down mortgage debt and credit card debt, student loan debt continues to rise – up 25% in the past 3 years. Add to this the worst job market in several generations, and you get comments like this on “We Are The 99 Percent”:

“Today my sociology professor asked a class of 35-40 hard-working students at a respected public university how many of us expected to get a job after graduation… No one raised their hand. Then she asked how many of us had over $10,000 in student loans… Almost every hand in the classroom, including mine, shot up.”

It’s not just the paupers who are popping mad. In one of his daily “Term Sheet” e-mail to the financial community last week, Fortune’s Dan Primack asked the following questions about higher education in a piece titled “The Next Occupation”:

Where is the university's responsibility to its customers? Hell, where is its responsibility to America? Isn't college designed to enhance a student's future well-being and, in turn, that of society at-large? How did it get corrupted to the point where higher education is the cause, rather than the solution, to so many of our collective ills?

Since launching this newsletter over the summer, we have tried to hammer home the point that we are at a turning point: the legacy of the Great Recession in higher education is that return on investment (ROI) will be the key decision driver for all but the most privileged students. As we have noted, universities will need to lower tuition and develop and deploy programs and delivery models that not only permit but encourage students to work while they earn degrees, and that provide more concrete links to employers and careers. The anger and emotion we’re hearing in recent weeks simply means that the day of reckoning for many institutions is more nigh’ than expected.


If tuition and indebtedness are the injury, many universities are adding insult by providing a level of customer service that would put organizations in any other industry out of business.

Exhibit A is this syllabus from Cal State Northridge that would be funny if it weren’t so sad. In 9 painful pages, the instructor does his utmost to discourage students from taking his class in Psychological Statistics. Among the more poignant warnings:

  • The instructor is not obligated in any way to add students to the class even if there are vacancies. Some not-enrolled students think the instructor will eventually add them to the class if they continue to attend class. The instructor is NOT obligated and will NOT add such students.
  • Students are warned that if they do work using a pen, cross-outs or messy work (at the judgment of the instructor) will NOT be tolerated and will get the students a zero score.
  • Posted on the web are 43+ pages of study questions… The instructor will NOT answer any questions regarding these questions.
  • Do not submit the lab assignments under the instructor’s door, in the instructor’s mailbox or the psychology department office. Such submissions will be discarded and you will receive a zero score.
  • Unstapled assignments will be given a score of zero.
  • Emails to the instructor concerning one’s grade or grading component will not be answered.
  • If you are the type of person who uses a computer to take notes, you need to take this course from some other instructor. Any student caught using a computer during lecture will be asked to drop the class.
  • If a cell phone rings during an exam, the exam session ends for ALL students.
  • If there are any components of the class that you do not like drop this course immediately and take it from another instructor.
  • This is an extremely stressful class. If you are on medication or suffer from severe stress, please do not take this course from this instructor. There are other instructors who are a lot less stressful to the student. Please take this course (Psy 320/L) from them.
  • If you are unable to comply with these important rules, drop this course immediately and take it from someone else where these rules are NOT important to them.

Although writing about this syllabus will probably give us an automatic grade of “WU” (which, the instructor notes repeatedly, “computes as an ‘F’ grade”), we do so to make the point that in an era of skyrocketing tuition and oversubscribed classes, universities will want to reconsider establishing service levels that actually help students earn their degree rather than forcing students to live (rather than read) the work of Kafka. Let’s rebuild our universities around students rather than entitled instructors.

This is one area where traditional universities would do well to learn from their newer for-profit brethren. Universities that can’t or won’t change face a future as dismal as that of their disgruntled students.

University Ventures Fund invests in universities and service companies in areas where rising demand and shrinking supply create rapidly growing market and student service opportunities.