COVENTRY, England — When she finished high school, Helen Kinchin got what was supposed to be a temporary job, after which she planned to go to college.
Fourteen years later, she was in the same job and had two kids, but still no degree.
That’s when Kinchin, now 36, found a way to finally resume her education in a way that was fast, simple and comparatively cheap.
She enrolled at a university where students can start at any of six times during the year, take just one subject at a time for the same four hours every weekday and end up with a bachelor’s degree in three years. There are no electives; just about the only choice is whether to go in the mornings or the afternoons.
It’s a routine that can make life easier for exactly the kinds of people universities are trying to recruit in many countries where enrollment is declining, including the United States. Getting child care is simpler for student parents when they have a predictable schedule, for example, rather than classes that meet at different times on different days. And not all students care about electives or extracurricular activities; a growing number just want to graduate.
This assembly-line-style approach also vastly lowers the cost of doing business for the university, called CU Coventry, which doesn’t have to juggle faculty assignments or classroom space or offer many of the extras other institutions have added over time that don’t have anything to do with education.
It’s an example of how a “no-frills” higher education can be cheaper, faster, simpler and less intimidating for students at a time when going to college has otherwise become more complicated, with all kinds of add-ons that push up prices.
“When we started, we stripped things back,” said Ian Dunn, the affable, white-bearded provost, who sits in a pink hoodie in a lunchroom filled with blond wood and natural light. “We’re very much focused on transactional learning — the systematization of the teaching approach and the way in which we employ people to work in that model.”
The library, for instance, has only books connected to the subjects of the classes. There are no athletics, though students can participate in the broader activities of the parent Coventry University nearby or pay extra if they decide to use the gym. And faculty don’t do research; they only teach.
“We fit around the lives of students rather than making them fit around us,” Dunn said.
It wasn’t entirely out of the goodness of their hearts that administrators here created a low-cost university. The program was spun off a decade ago by the then-169-year-old Coventry University after universities in England were allowed to raise tuition to a maximum of £9,000 a year (since raised to £9,250, or about $11,750) — nearly triple the previous amount — and encouraged to compete for students.
“This was an existential moment for a university like ours,” Dunn said. With tuition being increased by so much, “we felt there was a whole potential demographic that was going to be pushed out of higher education with that change.” The customers administrators feared they’d lose included “more disadvantaged students or students tied to their locations because of financial or personal responsibilities.”
So the university “thought about how we would design a model where we could control the cost of the delivery of education so we could offer back to the students some of that savings.”
CU Coventry — originally called Coventry University College — set its price at £4,800 a year, about half of what the top universities charge, for degrees in subjects including business management, accounting, cloud computing, marketing and public relations, tourism and hospitality management and early childhood development and learning. It has since added campuses in Scarborough and London.
Though some students come straight from high school or after a gap year, the average age is 35. “Mature,” they’re called, in England.
A small but growing proportion of students at U.S. universities are also older than the traditional 18 to 22. They’re among the more than 40 million adults who have some college credits but no degrees, and who recruiters are going after as enrollment falls. Among the top reasons they haven’t come back, according to a Gallup survey: cost and family responsibilities.
Those are two things CU Coventry has tried to fix, with its comparatively low tuition and daily four-hour classes.
“People can study while having obligations, family obligations. You don’t have to sacrifice your life,” said one student here, Mabel Makombore, who works part time while in school. “We’re all struggling financially,” she said.
This West Midlands city’s dominance in auto manufacturing made it a German target during the Blitz, an attack still visible in the ruins of the cathedral — left as a memorial — but those factories and the jobs they represented are mostly gone.
CU Coventry students talk of other advantages in addition to the price, including each term’s focus on a single subject in what Dunn referred to as a “modular delivery” system. “We’re only doing one thing at a time,” said Kinchin, who just graduated with a degree in applied bioscience and is moving on to get a Ph.D.
The idea, generally known in England as block teaching, has begun to spread. It has been adopted in the last few years in some form or another, and for all or some students, by the University of Suffolk, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Plymouth, De Montfort University in Leicester and UA92 in Manchester, a school cofounded by Lancaster University and former members of the Manchester United football club for people from disadvantaged backgrounds who might otherwise not go to college. It’s also being used in Sweden and Australia.
Many also like the strict pathway that allows them to stay on track to graduation. That’s something being tried by a few universities in the United States, too, where students find themselves drowning in choices — a situation only getting worse as schools have added tens of thousands of new programs in an effort to attract more students, who end up with more credits than they need to graduate and spend more money on and time in college.
U.S. students at four-year universities, on average, accumulate 15 credits more than they need to graduate, and at community colleges, 22 credits more, according to the advocacy group Complete College America.
Having to learn a crush of subjects simultaneously was among Ashkan Bahgozen’s fears about going to college while balancing the job of managing his family’s café. “I was very intimidated about courses overlapping,” he said. He just wanted to get a degree.
That’s a surprisingly widespread sentiment among CU Coventry students.
“You can focus” on your principal discipline, said Makombore, who is studying accounting and finance after having previously started and never finished a degree in fashion, business and marketing at a more traditional university in London. “You’re not going backward and forward and mixing things up.”
Her classmate, Monika Myslewska, 33, added: “My main advice is don’t go to university right out of school. Wait until you know what you want to do.”
CU Coventry is not for everyone. For example, many people want to explore topics in college outside of their majors. Around 30 percent of the school’s first-year students drop out before the second year, a spokesperson said. (The figure is misleadingly high because it includes the number who enroll and never start.) Still, that’s lower than the combination of first-year students at U.S. universities who drop out or don’t show up.
But the CU Coventry model, Kinchin said, frees students from having to find their own way through endless numbers of electives, and keeps them focused on the end goal.
“When students start off, they might be less confident. But by the time they finish, they’re quite confident,” she said.
That’s Bahgozen’s story. “If you met me four years ago, I was a shy, quiet kid” who had to take access courses, he said — the equivalent of remedial classes in the U.S., for students who don’t meet college-level academic requirements. Now he’s finished his degree in management and leadership with a “first,” or first-class honors, the highest level. He has begun a job in the United States for the Liverpool-based Everton Football Club’s soccer schools.
From the university’s point of view, said Dunn, giving students choices “adds lots of cost. Part of the expense of running a university is the complexity of timetabling and scheduling and personalizing that to the individual.” That makes CU Coventry’s fixed format cheaper to provide.
This doesn’t mean that some administrators at the college haven’t tried to raise tuition. That has happened at least once, Dunn said — during a management meeting he did not attend.
“I behaved appallingly at the next management meeting,” he said, “and we brought the price back down.”
This story about the cost of college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.