The cost of higher education is a great debate. While many simply point the finger at higher education institutions, it is worth a closer look at some of the troubling cost factors involved. Though astronomical salaries for coaches and star faculty, as well as administrative bloat, are often included in the debate, the cost of technology is usually overlooked. This is not an anti-technology post, however. Technology has become a crucial component in operating institutions, conducting research, and enrollment management. The costs of such products, however, have spiraled out of control. What we need are better negotiation strategies and updated pricing structures.

Academic Journals

Last year, I had lunch with a librarian friend. We began to discuss the cuts we would be making to our budgets the coming year. My cuts included the standard technology, travel, and subscriptions- the usual. The library’s cuts, however, are centered on academic journals. I had never given much thought to the cost of journals. I mean, how much could they possibly be? A few thousand a year? A couple hundred? I was wrong if I had even given it a thought at all. I was astonished to hear one journal costs $14K a year! What does one receive for that much a year? An annual subscription provides access to the journal’s articles for all faculty, staff, and students. Perhaps the cost would be worth it for some journals if they were accessed more than four times a year, but unfortunately, that cannot be said for all journals. Not only are some journals unreasonably costly, but each year the costs of journals are raised substantially – between 5-25%! The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign echoes these same numbers on their Web site.

“While many university libraries face severe budget cuts, large commercial publishers in the academic journal market have enjoyed increasing profits. In 2002, for instance, revenue rose 26% and operating profit increased to 25% for Elsevier, the largest journal publisher in the science, technology, and medical field.” [1]

I have read my fair share of higher education research, reform, reinvention, reimagined… everything. Cost is always front and center- the rising costs of tuition, the spending on real estate, the administration bloat, faculty salaries, student services… Never have I read anything about the costs of maintaining a library- purchasing books, library systems, nor the costs of academic journals. Yet, the cost of journals, alone, take up a substantial part of the budget. If you work in higher education, you may have an idea why journals are necessary. I asked this very question during our conversation. Turns out that academic journals present a strange predicament. While most programs will build a journal into their start-up budget, they generally do not contribute to the re-subscription of that journal after that point, which means that the journals then become part of the library’s budget and, later, are included in the rising tuition bill. Secondly, it can be hard to find relevant academic articles outside of some specialized journals. These articles are needed for research by faculty and students. In many ways, higher education helps to perpetuate the rising costs of tuition through journals. Faculty are expected to publish in reputable journals as part of their annual review and tenure process. Programs continue to demand specialized and costly journals for research. Journals continue to raise their prices yearly, because what is stopping them?


I had worked in higher education IT for nearly 10 years. It wasn’t until I inherited a budget line that I began to see some very dangerous trends with technology companies that cater to higher education. Many of the contracts colleges sign for technology use the FTE (full-time student enrollment) as a way to measure cost. Though this number was once pretty fixed for most institutions, it now fluctuates nearly every year. The problem is that most technology contracts are signed with 3-5 year terms and the FTE is non-negotiable during this time frame. My institution signed a contract with Desire2Learn for 3 years and we are now, unfortunately, paying for 400 students we don’t have. The FTE has become such a common way to charge higher education institutions that it is also used as a form of measurement for products that don’t even involve students. For example, we were once interested in a professional development add-on for Desire2Learn. It made sense- we have a learning management system, let’s use it for online professional development. D2L wanted to use the FTE as a way to charge the institution for this add-on. I made the case that this was silly since the product would be used primarily by non-matriculated professionals through our professional development units. They were unwilling to budge and so I helped these two units install a $100 LMS plug-in (LearnDash) for WordPress, instead. Though these points are bad, I think the worst point is that there is no single way companies or institutions calculate their FTE. While most institutions might use just the FT undergraduates as their FTE count, other institutions count their FT graduate students in their FTE. When I questioned Desire2Learn about how they define FTE, they didn’t have an answer- they simply said, ‘however you define your FTE’. To me, this didn’t make sense. Doesn’t this mean that there are some schools paying more than others for D2L? Obviously. Using the FTE as a method of charging institutions is an outdated and incorrect method for all of these reasons.

Another problem with technology in higher education is the expected increase in costs each year. I work at a small institution that does not benefit from the luxury of taxpayer dollars, state consortium pricing, or the state incurring the costs of technology used across all of the campuses. We pay for technology out of regular budget dollars- whatever that might be, year to year. Most technology contracts have a clause that institutions ‘might experience an increase in cost from year to year because of cost-of-living increases’. When I noticed that this increase occurred each year with Desire2Learn, I began thinking about a point in time when the college would no longer be able to afford the system. Last year, we were charged $67k, this year $70k, soon it will be $80k in 3 more years and then $100k in 10 more years. At what point will we be priced out of the market? Then, I wondered, why are we experiencing a cost-of-living increase when the cost of technology, support, and storage is going down? I asked my D2L rep about all of these things and I can’t say he had an awesome response. “Our cost increases are on par with and at a frequency of other learning management systems in the market”. So the reason we are receiving these cost increases is because other learning management systems are doing the same thing? Pretty much. I was disappointed that our LMS wanted to be just like other LMSs. My rep also said that my cost increase was because D2L ‘came out with over 600 improvements last year’. I had to let out a chuckle on that one. There are a million and one issues with features used every day in D2L that have been an issue since we signed on board with them. Their approach to support is for users to put in a ticket about things that are broke, but in most of these cases, they consider them ‘new features’ that have to go through the ‘community forum’ where *maybe* they will get worked on. A few community forum topics that have received regular ‘thumbs up’ each year since I’ve been a member of the community include: grading discussion forums P/F, having the same view when adding a discussion in the Discussions area as when adding a discussion in the Content area, and including files when importing course content topics so that broken links aren’t the result created. Whatever ‘improvements’ they are making isn’t hitting everyday users. For all of these reasons, expected and excessive cost increases are out of control.

Lastly, most campuses have a problem with the proliferation of technology on campus because there is usually no one group that is in charge of the technology purchasing and vetting. You will oftentimes find multiple technologies being used for the same purpose, or the purchase of a technology for a purpose when there was already an existing technology that could have served that purpose. This also causes a spread of files across multiple platforms and causes technology fatigue among users. The solution most campuses lack is technology curation and consultation. Once a need arises, there needs to be an authorized and promoted body on campus that recommends a product with workflow and negotiates pricing. It should be clear to users what products already exist and how they could use them. The boat most campuses land up in is paying for too many products that they really don’t need and never maximizing the use of any one product.

At what point does this cost become too big a burden to bear for our students? In the end, it is them who incur these costs. As technology costs go up, their tuition goes up, too.