Columbia College: Worth the price of admission?

By The Columbia Chronicle

If you happen to be a college president, Columbia is indeed the place to be. But how good a deal is Columbia if you’re merely a student? Are you getting your money’s worth at this expensive private school? Is attending Columbia often tantamount to buying an expensive pair of designer jeans where the buyer often pays as much (or more) for the brand name as for the guarantee of quality?

In order to make this kind of judgment call, the prospective student must consider several factors including tuition costs, academic reputation, overall accessibility, convenience and faculty status. Often the key to choosing a school for many budget-concerned individuals is the price of admission and how this can be financed.

But first, some basics. Columbia gathers some 8,000+ students to its South Loop campus each semester. Unlike a majority of universities and colleges in the state (including junior and community colleges), Columbia opts for the somewhat dated registration process whereupon students trudge from room to room, building to building, even block to block in order to register for their courses. This procedure can be a lengthy and sometimes patience-testing one, as long lines form and printers and computers periodically go down, causing delays.

While most other schools have made the pre-millennial transition to the eminently more efficient automated registration method (via telephone), Columbia admissions spokespersons have said there is little if any demand for this type of systems overhaul (which would admittedly cut out some temporary work benefits for the largely student-operated process — at least on the front lines). Usually demand is gauged by questionnaires and polls and so far none have been put forth by Columbia’s officers concerning this issue.

In terms of tuition, Columbia, while a reasonable deal in the full-time status option, leads the regional pack in terms of credit hour tuition costs, coming in at $326 per credit hour (pcr). This lofty fee tops DePaul University ($285-295 pcr) and falls just under Loyola University’s $336 pcr. UIC offers a variety of rates rather than focusing on dollars per credit hour. The school charges a fee of $1150 for up to five hours, $1740 for 6-11 hours and $2250 for twelve or more hours. The UIC full-timer will pay around $4500 a year for tuition, which boils down to roughly $175 pcr.

Columbia is rather unique in terms of private college status in Chicago. It is an “open admissions” college, which to some sounds like an egalitarian and democratic social experience on par with the “come one, come all” beckoning of the Statue of Liberty or perhaps P.T. Barnum. In reality, it’s pure business: you pay, you play. This point is fairly obvious, and there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with this arrangement. It gives students who scored poorly on aptitude tests, or those who spent their high school years in detention halls, a second chance at an ostensibly reputable college.

But it is important to see the school for what it is: A glorified trade school. Again, no real harm done there. The many members of the faculty who hold full-time positions in related professional fields can be a considerable advantage for students interested in making it in the arts and communication world. Many Columbia students attended classes taught by instructors (rather than professors or teachers) who can instruct them on what it’s really like in the cruel “real world” you’ve undoubtedly heard about. Better yet, the professional here can be a liaison into this fabled real world which cuts out a lot of down-time for many unfortunate graduates bogged down in the seemingly ended resume distribution process.

And certainly, Columbia has done its homework in making connections to local professional institutes like television news outlets, a large array of commercial radio stations in town (as well as the National Public Radio outlet WBEZ), newspaper and magazine organizations, and art and photography contacts. Professional connections can make a big difference when considering who gets picked over many others in the highly competitive job arena. The theory here is a good one: Professionals have on-the-job experience and can offer a vivid portrait of the outside world and what to expect. A solid bridge connecting college to the career world is no doubt an invaluable resource.

But let us consider the pitfalls of this arrangement. First of all, just because your instructor is a professional working in the real world does not mean this individual is a teacher. Part-timers at Columbia are not required to have teaching certificates and may often relegate student grading to the back-burner since this job is but supplemental income to their professional full-time work. And just how much of the school’s faculty are certifiable full-time professionals as opposed to part-timers increasing their part-timer load in order to pay mounting bills and school loans (any mention of benefits beyond free copier access and pen and paper is simply out of the question)?

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recommends roughly a 15 percent representation on any university/college teaching faculty. Columbia exceeds this percentage to a ridiculous degree. Currently, the part-time to full-time ratio at Columbia rests comfortably at around 80/20 (although the school is working on upping the full-time ante).

So, let us do a little figurative mathematics here. Eighty percent or more of the teaching at Columbia is done by part-time instructors, many who are not working full-time, outside-world professional jobs where they could expect certain benefits such as health and dental insurance and other amenities of full-time employment. Full-time instructors are paid approximately $6,000 for a semester course whereas part-timers are offered a mere $1,482 per course. So, if you’re fortunate enough to pick a full-time instructor or professor, then there is a more than a fair chance you can get your money’s worth assuming you pay attention and study your overpriced used textbooks (note: my “Advanced Reporting” book, published in 1987, set me back $72. Used).

But if you select a part-time instructor, it could be somewhat of a crap-shot. Even if your instructor cares about his or her work and can do an adequate job at getting the message across until the end of the semester, are you still getting an education worth $326 per credit hour? If Columbia collects roughly $16,000 for the average 20-student class and a great majority of courses are taught by part-timers earning less then $1,500 per course, then just where is our precious capital flowing?