Does Effective Liberal Learning Enhance Affordability?

What Liberal Education Looks Like, AAC&U’s new vision of excellence in undergraduate education, calls on higher education to pay more attention to issues of affordability. But when it comes to undergraduate education, don’t improvements in affordability (e.g., budget cuts, tuition reductions) necessarily debase quality? Is it possible to maintain or enhance the quality of learning, equitable access, and affordability simultaneously?

Before diving in, a definition: affordability reflects how much money or time people are both willing (motivated) and able to invest. For instance, you might shop for groceries and decide that you can’t afford $100 for a steak; that is, you’re able to spend $100, but think this is not important enough to warrant spending the money: you’re not willing. The next day you buy a new car: you’re both able and willing to spend enough. However, you decide not to buy a new house, even though it would transform your family life, because you can’t get a mortgage: you’re willing but not able to buy a house.  

Now let's dive: over the years, when budget cuts have happened, I’ve heard many academics assume that a corresponding decline in quality, access, or both was inevitable. This supposedly inevitable relationship among cost, access, and quality is usually called the “Iron Triangle.” To put it in different terms, the Iron Triangle presumes that quality is directly proportional to resources divided by the number of students. By this assumption, widening access must necessarily damage quality unless total instructional budgets expand enough, which reduces affordability. The word “iron” refers to this mathematical inevitability.

AAC&U member institutions have repeatedly demonstrated that the Iron Triangle doesn’t fit the facts. First, they’ve been able to improve quality and equitable access simultaneously. AAC&U calls this “inclusive excellence,” and it can be achieved by applying tenets of liberal learning:

Inclusive excellence should yield many benefits, including improved retention, higher graduation rates, and shorter time to degree. Inclusive excellence can also improve affordability, for the student and also for the institution. Students can take fewer courses (because they fail fewer of them); this can mean getting a degree while paying less in tuition. Students’ expected lifetime earnings can increase when they start jobs requiring a college degree earlier in their lives. (Remember that one element of affordability is motivation; this gain can increase students’ motivation to invest time and money.) Meanwhile, the institution also can save time and money when retention and graduation rates improve, because they need to provide fewer courses per student.

Georgia State University, for example, is a big institution that awards close to five thousand bachelor’s degrees each year. Thanks in part to its use of evidence-based approaches to teaching, such as learning communities, six-year graduation rates increased from 32 percent to 55 percent between 2003 and 2018. Over this period, the percentage of Georgia State undergraduates who were Pell-eligible and African American increased. Over that same period, the graduation rates for these groups increased even faster than for the student body as a whole; on various measures, the performance of students from underserved groups approached or equaled the performance of students from more privileged groups. The university estimates that for every percentage point increase in graduation rates, the institution earns over $3 million more in tuition revenue.

In a nutshell, the AAC&U design for effective liberal education can contribute to affordability while also improving quality and equitable access.

Stephen C. Ehrmann is a former grant-maker, consultant, and vice provost for teaching and learning at George Washington University. Ideas in this post are adapted from his forthcoming book, Quality, Access, and Affordability: Institutions of Higher Education Pursuing 3Fold Gains, which will be published by Stylus Press in early 2021.

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