Our Commitment to Low Cost, High Quality Education

As we end our first year, I want to reiterate a fundamental value of Austin Center for Design: A commitment to affordable, quality education. The relative cost of graduate study in the US has grown out of control in the last few years, and I’m not the first to point out the untenable prices of higher education. Author of DIY U Anya Kamenetz asks “What’s to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008?”

A design degree from any of the top schools in the country, such as CMU, Pratt, or Parsons, will run $32,000 a year, and the two year total of $64,000 will take most students close to 10 years to pay off at a monthly rate that rivals their rent. Students’ collective focus is shifting from a “winner takes all – house, car, and garage” lifestyle to one that’s more thoughtful, methodical, and purposeful, yet without a giant paycheck, this tuition rate appears absurd. With $64,000 in debt – likely on top of $150,000 in undergraduate pain – it’s difficult to imagine a new alumni embracing a risky job or opportunity. Yet it’s precisely those risky jobs and opportunities that we are hoping will solve societal woes – innovators and entrepreneurs.

MIT Media Lab’s new director Joi Ito has made affordable education a primary concern, and it’s clear that the school is responding to popular pushback against high tuition rates. I’m hoping to see drastic cuts in the tuition rate at MIT (both graduate and undergraduate tuition without room and board is $39,212 per year – that’s a quarter of a million dollars for an undergrad and grad degree), but I’m not optimistic – I understand the economics and politics of an endowment, and tuition rates generally go in one-direction only. SCAD – where I used to teach – pays its president just shy of two million dollars and demands a graduate tuition of $30,960 per year for a graduate degree. How can a student hope to pay this off in their professional career?

I wonder if these schools might think creatively about their business model – they are, after all, giant businesses – and find a way to subsidize the majority costs of the endowment in another way. What if universities pushed harder to encourage technology transfer, claiming minority investment positions in startups and helping find practical uses for the research that’s conducted in most research institutions?

It’s time that design schools took their user-centered design methodologies to heart, looking at their users – that is, their students – in a more humane light. Burdening a student with such phenomenal debt at such an early stage of their careers is criminal. The cost of education seems to be unrelated to the quality of delivered product – it is not an equitable exchange. And of all subjects, design claims a fundamental responsibility to change the world for the better, demanding empathy with users. Why, then, do we continue to put such a cost on this responsibility?

Austin Center for Design exists to transform society through design and design education. We hope to be able to utilize our tuition revenue in the future to fund the startups and entrepreneurs that complete our program – to create startup-specific scholarships and help these students achieve their visions. As we enter our second year and explore the legal logistics of this, we turn to our colleagues at other more seasoned and established design institutions and ask them to do the same. Consider how you can lower the cost of tuition, fund the passions of your alumni, drive innovation in the model of funding education, and change the way the educational system works in the US. I have no doubt that design will drive a charge for social and cultural change, but the scale of this impact will remain artificially constrained until our graduates can embrace financial risk where it counts – not when they enter school, but when they launch their own businesses.