Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of productivity in higher education. There are many ways to measure what we accomplish such as numbers of graduates, what kinds of jobs our graduates get, research dollars, patents received, research productivity (publishing), just to name some of the most obvious. But any discussion of such factors leads immediately to the budget, what the marginal cost of any of these things is, and whether that marginal cost is increasing or decreasing.
This question of marginal cost is one I had to think about a lot last year because part of my brief as an Associate Dean was to monitor the enrollment in all the many hundreds of course sections in our College to make sure that all of those sections had sufficient numbers of students given how much it was costing us to offer that course. Was the class being taught by a tenure-line faculty member (Cost = x), by a term, i.e., non-tenure track but full time faculty member (Cost = x – 1.5) or by an adjunct faculty member (Cost = x – 4)? These formulas are made up and arbitrary, but they approximate the kind of decision making we had to engage in. Considerations of marginal cost per course had to be balanced against student needs, i.e., a particular capstone course had to be taught so some students could graduate. But as the start of a new semester approached, we had to think carefully about which sections to cancel and the marginal cost per section was an important consideration–one of many, to be sure, but an important one of those many.
As education budgets and endowments imploded across the United States during what some are now calling the Great Recession, plenty of people have asked whether or not efficiencies could be found that would allow us to lower the marginal cost per course. The obvious solution is to shrink the number of sections and expand the size of every section. There are well known educational downsides to fewer and larger course sections, but such has been the state of may university budgets that bigger classes are a necessity.
Here at George Mason I sometimes hear the argument that the solution to all our budget woes lies in ever greater adoption of technology as a course content delivery vehicle. After all, the University of Phoenix is hugely profitable and most of what they offer is offered online. Why can’t we just follow their model and reduce costs per student taught and, possibly, even teach many more students with our existing faculty? After all, we have run out of classroom space, but need to teach more students to keep bringing in more money. I think this argument is flawed for two reasons. First, the University of Phoenix, Walden University, and others have already beat us to that punch and anything we tried to do on a large scale would not measure up to what they do. Second, a shift to substantially online teaching would require either significant retraining of faculty and investment in technology infrastructure that we don’t currently have. Faculty would resist such retraining and right now there is almost no money for investment in infrastructure.
So where does that leave us? Should we, as the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of UC-Berkeley have argued, make a massive federal investment in a small number of top flight universities and thereby beggar smaller or less well known institutions? Or should we demand an ever greater share of the federal budget for education, but for all sectors of education? As a former Provost of the University of Southern California has pointed out, there simply isn’t enough money in the budget for higher education to grab a bigger slice. And if it’s true that higher education is in the midst of a bubble economy, we are in serious trouble, because the only way industries recover from the popping of a bubble is through massive restructuring.
If there were clear and obvious answers to the linked questions of funding and productivity, we would have found them already. Whether we would have embraced them is another story, but at least we would know what we were turning down. Instead, colleges and universities keep muddling along hoping that the changes we need to make won’t really be necessary after all. Some institutions are willing to try out some new ideas such as the outsourcing of grading. Our students are already changing the old higher education business model by renting textbooks. Others are saving thousands of dollars by taking courses from companies such as Straighterline.com.
If we accept the idea that the business model of higher education has to change, then I think we need to take some very, very hard looks at how we measure productivity in our industry. In my next post in this thread, I’ll outline some of the ways higher education may be able to make much greater use of technology without (a) having to engage in massive investment in infrastructure, (b) retraining faculty, or (c) diving into the online degree ocean while having failed to take swimming lessons.