Whenever I hear people whine about some allegedly soul-destroying atrocity in the academy and wondering what happened to the “heart” of the university and its ancient ideals, I always smile. I for one would totally be up for a return to the 18th-century university. Starting with pricing policies.
Back in the day, the administrative purpose of universities as corporate entities was mainly one of certification: masters would sit together and decide which students were worthy of degrees. The bureaucratization of the teaching function didn’t really happen until the 19th century; prior to that, professors made deals for instruction individually with students without the intermediation of the institution. The price of instruction was whatever the market would bear; professors who were in demand could charge more than others.
The standardization of prices and regularization of academic compensation was part and parcel of the massification of higher education; as student and professor numbers grew, it was simply too complicated to keep the pre-modern arrangements. Or at least it was before computing power became cheap. Nowadays, it’s quite common to differentiate prices between students via student aid and there’s no technical reason we couldn’t vary price by course/professor, too.
It needn’t be a free-for-all. Sure, it’d be fun to see what each professor could charge and it would create incentives to keep course offerings relevant and lively. (What’s that? What’s to prevent a race-to-the-bottom of pandering to students in search for money? As in the eighteenth century: professional ethics.) The main drawback I see is that it would privilege the individual course over the integrated program, which might not be great for learning outcomes.
But one could still use pricing tools to send important messages to departments. In those institutions that link departmental budgets to tuition income in some manner, why not consider some kind of variable pricing scheme based on teaching quality and research output? For instance, say you have base tuition of $500 per class. You could raise the fee to $600 for each class in which teacher evaluations have consistently been above-average, adjusted for the professors’ grading policies (no grubbing for marks by handing out easy A’s), and $750 for a class with above-average ratings that is also taught by a professor with a superior research record.
If you’re squeamish about differential prices, you could as a second-best solution still achieve something similar by keeping tuition equal but distributing funds internally to departments according to such a scheme.
Generally speaking, universities and colleges are about building bridges to the future. But sometimes there’s value in building them to the past, too. Tuition policy might just be such an area.