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Why can’t a university education be sold cheaper?

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | March 11, 2010

That, for me, is the question that all of us who are faculty at Berkeley– and colleagues across the country– are most obviously avoiding, and most deeply dreading. And it is time for us to answer that question because until we do, any argument we make for changes in how the state supports the university, whether through new taxes (like the suggestion for a new oil severance tax) or some sort of automatic proportion of budget resources (like Governer Schwarzenegger’s proposal to lock in funding levels for higher education), is missing a critical piece.

President Obama’s State of the Union speech this January called for better support for college access. But he also included the following statement:

And by the way, it’s time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs -– (applause) — because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem.

Former President Bill Clinton said something similar last September, remarking that

higher education institutions are pricing themselves into America’s decline

and that we will

have to change the delivery system in higher education.

So is this true? and if so, what does it mean for those of us in university systems?

First, let’s consider what talking about education as something with a “delivery system” means: that we can treat education like a commodity. Thus the title of this post: why can’t an education be “sold” for less? Or to paraphrase a number of other discussions about higher education, how can we be more “efficient” in “delivery” (there’s that word again) of a college education?

If efficiency in delivery of an education product is the point, well, of course there is a more efficient delivery method. University of Phoenix has been aggressively pursuing it, to apparent success.

So, what do I do that my students cannot get for less money– and in a more convenient package– elsewhere? Why shouldn’t they– and their parents, and the state legislature– ask me to be more efficient and deliver a competitively priced product?

To directly confront these or similar questions, we have to start by rejecting what has come to be the dominant model of higher education in this country. Education is not a product; it is not something we “deliver”; it cannot be treated like a commodity.

Education is a process, one that takes place in the mind of the learner. In a university, this comes about as a result of experiences orchestrated by more advanced learners, the apprentice teachers who are themselves simultaneously graduate students, and the practicing teachers who base their teaching in their own research. Universities don’t deliver an educational product: they promote the creation of knowledge by students.

And that is not a process that is enhanced by streamlining or efficiencies. Learning is inherently inefficient.

When I enter a classroom prepared to ask some provocative questions about readings I selected because they would require students to think, I am not taking the shortest, simplest route that I could. That route– packaging and delivering an “education”– would instead have me come in, lecture, post handouts corresponding in every detail to what I planned to say– which would be what I actually did say, no deviation to explore student questions– and then administer tests to see how well students could recapitulate what it was I said.

That kind of “teaching” might easily be scaled up to ever-larger numbers of students, first by building bigger classrooms with better sound systems, and then by videotaping, audiotaping, and posting the content of my lectures. But the people-products of such an effort would not have learned much. They might be very good at reproducing some of what I said, especially if they were asked about it in the same way I originally presented it. But asked to apply what they learned to a novel situation I never talked about, they would be unprepared to find points of connection to use what they knew to explain the new case. If the “product” we are being asked to deliver is workers, well, the workers such a system would produce would be rigid and incapable of adapting, unused to creativity.

Because I see the education-as-product model as fundamentally at odds with the learning-as-process one, I am uneasy when well-intentioned commentators on higher education suggest our problem is that we need to be more “efficient”. I am suspicious of policy initiatives that suggest the solution to our problem is to expand what they imagine are more efficient alternatives, like community colleges, to process more of the pending generation of potential college students. Such policy pronouncements do not acknowledge that community colleges in places like California actually promote learning in the same “inefficient” ways we do in universities, sometimes in classes much smaller (and therefore more costly in labor on a per capita basis) than those we routinely face in public universities. So what makes expanding community colleges seem like such a panacea for policymakers?

This gets us, finally, close to acknowledging unstated assumptions behind the claim that universities need to deliver a more efficient, cheaper education product. The only way I can see community colleges seeming to be more “efficient” to a politician is if the measure of what I do is the number of courses I teach.

University faculty teach fewer courses over a term than our brothers and sisters in other institutions of higher education. I gasp when I hear the teaching loads some of my friends carry at Cal State campuses, or that recent PhDs face at community colleges. I barely can keep up with the students in my two required courses, my voluntary overload freshman seminar, the two senior honors’ theses I am supervising, the dozen Undergraduate Research Apprentices whose work I foster, my two dissertation writers, one pre-dissertation student deeply involved in data analysis, and something like a dozen more graduate students actively writing, whose dissertation committees I am on in my own and other departments.

And of course, all that is the answer to the accusation that we do not deliver education efficiently. No, we don’t. And thank god for that.

I regularly meet one-on-one with students from undergraduate to finishing doctoral level to go over their research, read their writing, discuss books and articles, strategize which conferences they should go to, what grants to apply for to fund their research, their conferences, their summer working in labs or field sites. This is incredibly inefficient. It is, however, indispensable to introduce students to the process of research in the most effective way, as apprentices, participants learning at an appropriate pace and challenged at an appropriate level.

Research, of course, can be viewed in the educational industry model as another source of inefficiency, detracting from the number of courses I could teach, an activity that is somehow solely personal, thoroughly dispensable, and unrelated to the quality of the education my students receive.

And of course, I reject this as well. Research and teaching are not at odds; they are interlocked parts of a single cycle of producing knowledge. My students get to be part of the birth of every new idea I develop. And I don’t just mean they witness this process: they contribute to it. When I lecture, I draw on my own research for examples, for case studies, to explain the kinds of things I am talking about. And the students with whom I am engaged ask questions I simply won’t think of, can no longer see because I am so close to my own work. To answer those questions, I need to hone my arguments, critically evaluate the evidence I use, constantly question what makes an argument better or worse.

In the process, my students learn how to question any argument, any line of research, and become educated thinkers. If we no longer need people who have the tools to attack a new question, take it apart, analyze it, and put together a new model that accounts for it and the already-existing questions, then by all means, ask universities to cut the costs consequent on fostering active learning and address the inefficiencies of conducting research in tandem with teaching. But don’t expect us to continue to be as vibrant a source of ideas as we have historically been, and don’t expect the students we teach to have the same capacities that they develop now.

We need to stop applying corporate models to higher education. If we want– as we should– to have all capable citizens have the opportunity to exercise their minds in debate, to engage in the kind of inquiry that characterizes research, and to have the experience of developing a new line of argument, then we cannot short-circuit the process of learning. We’ve already short-changed learning at public universities across the country, where trash is no longer collected regularly, phones are not available, and paper for exams has to be provided by the students taking them.

The fact that the members of these communities of learning– ideally, more like monasteries than factories– are finally speaking out should be met, not with the cynical zero-sum game arguments that are being trotted out in California and elsewhere, but with a re-commitment on the part of the public to the idea that education is an investment by all of us in all of us. It is an investment that requires resources: but one that will be repaid sevenfold.

Comments to “Why can’t a university education be sold cheaper?

    • Dangerous leftist drivel? Please make a real argument without resorting to politically partisan ad-hominem. If we, the US, manage to price our children and our grandchildren out of an advanced education then our industries are going to suffer. Our ability to generate new ideas and new technologies will be hamstrung. We will be out-competed by businesses in other countries.

      Our MBAs may secure business deals that give us a great deal of “capital,” but will any of that be worth anything if we no longer mine our own ore? Or if we had no ability to refine it? What use would business in our country be if our countrymen barely had the knowledge to produce tin whereas our competitors in other lands have the knowledge, the ability and the skills to produce futuristic metamaterials far beyond our own capabilities?

      With a University education too expensive to be within the reach of the average American we risk our own stagnation. And one would be a damn fool to believe otherwise.

  1. UK education was cheaper than the states. Now we are heading the same way as you. Expect riots in the UK fairly soon. __ DJH

  2. Rosemary, I really appreciate your extremely well written thoughts and for bringing the subject up in the first place. I’d really like to know where you got your figures that about cuts in funding. I’ve studied numerous web sites that has data on government spending and I see that State and local funding has doubled over the past 10 years. Over the same period inflation was around 26%. Education has decreased as a percentage slightly, but the overall amount has risen over time. What I’d like to see is a detailed analysis of where the money is going so we can find out why it seems like taxes and spending are always increasing but it seem I hear constantly about cutbacks in education spending – not just from you, but from others as well.

    Also, when you were talking about salaries, were you including pensions as part of compensation?

    I think all people across the political spectrum are united in wanting to make sure that education is extremely well funded and that our tax dollars are spent wisely. This includes making sure that people who work in education are compensated appropriately. But I am frustrated as we have seen that state, local and federal spending keeps taking up an increasingly percentage of GDP and it seems like we are not getting an adequate return in our spending. If the there is something wrong with the budgetary process in Sacramento, let’s fix it.

    • Gary, every time I cite economic facts I link to my sources. Sorry, but I don’t have time to repeat the process of linking here. In contrast, you say “I’ve studied numerous web sites”: well, give me a link to one and I will explain to you why the characterization you are reading differs. Could be that you are looking only at aggregate costs for education (all education); could be that the data is out of date; could be that the “data” are made up. The internet, I regret to say, is not a reliable source. I seek out professional academic analyses; government reports; and reports by reputable research organizations that are non-partisan.

      In this thread, I specifically refer to cuts in funding to public universities in recent years. If you are in California and don’t know that funding for public universities by the state was slashed, well, there has been plenty of press coverage. The 2011-2012 budget “restored” $199 million taken away last year, but that still leaves the university funding from the state 10% lower than in 2007-2008. Until this new budget was adopted, the university had absorbed increases in student enrollment since 2007 (that is, before the economy melted down) without receiving additional state funding needed to pay for the costs of education.

      California is better off this year than other state universities. As recently reported by Bloomberg Businessweek, “States are reducing funding to public universities by as much as 6 percent this fiscal year compared with last”. Public universities “face dramatic declines in state funding on a scale that surpasses past experience” according to the report quoted, by Moody’s Investors Services. In fact, the current situation is actually worse than it looks, because state universities– including UC– are drawing on Federal stimulus funds to fill in for missing state funding. Starting in 2012, those funds will no longer be there.

      As the Moody’s report notes, as of 2009, public universities overall received only 30% of their funding from the states– down from 50% as recently as 20 years ago.

      So yes, public universities have seen declining funding from the states, no matter what you might read on websites.

      The overall cost of education rises over time because the population is rising. More people going to college (those unfunded enrollment increases) is good for society, and good for the economy (we need those educated workers) but it also comes with a price tag.

      The issue of why education costs have risen in recent decades at a higher rate than inflation is addressed in the sources to which I have linked previously. I will simply note that taking inflation as the only measure assumes that the nature of education has not changed (and it has– again, information technology, critical to preparing new generations for society and employment today, cost real money to install, deploy, and keep up); it also ignores the fact that some things grow in cost at different rates– notably, the educated labor that is the major cost of universities.

      As for compensation for faculty: I said salary, I meant salary. Yes, UC faculty have a pension. No, I will not receive a hugely inflated income in retirement because of that. I, and other university faculty who chose public institutions are paid less than we would have been at private institutions, or even outside academia. Pensions are a deferred form of compensation that makes up for the fact that we are not being paid our full market value. That gets me back to the articles I cite below on why higher education costs are high: because universities have a very very well educated labor pool. Which is necessary for them to be effective.

      When you say that people want to see education “extremely well funded”, you have to accept that– as the studies I cite below say– the major expenses that ensure a quality education are those of hiring highly educated faculty (and staff). When you say you want to see that “our tax dollars are spent wisely”, though, you could mean one of two things: (1) that you think education should be cheaper– and there, again, I can only refer you to the economic analyses that stress the only way to make a cheaper product in an industry like ours less expensive is to lower the quality; or, (2) you think universities are squandering funds. I invite you to come see the classroom where (literally) my colleague is trying to teach hundreds of students in an introductory class and the ceiling collapsed on them. No funding being squandered here: Berkeley is in desperate need of repairing and replacing classrooms and buildings.

      Finally, when you say that you are “frustrated as we have seen that state, local and federal spending keeps taking up an increasingly percentage of GDP” I hear an echo of arguments that economist Paul Krugman has repeatedly taken apart: currently, government spending as a percentage of GDP is going up because we are in a recession and other parts of the economy are contracting. I have, here and elsewhere, linked to objective analyses of the California State Budget that take apart claims of unchecked spending growth. These claims simply are not true. They appear on a lot of web sites, but they are bad analysis or just bad faith.

      Yes, there is something wrong with the budgetary process in Sacramento. Having to have a supermajority to pass a budget delays the hard choices. Right now, those should include finding ways to keep from slashing funding, to keep from eliminating jobs, because as jobs are eliminated so is the tax base. In deep recessions, government has to fill in where private enterprise temporarily cannot. As long as people insist that government services be cheap, while claiming they want them to continue to deliver the same quality to the same (or more) users, we will fail as a state and a society to produce well being and wealth for everyone.

      • Professor Joyce, there is one other university education problem that must be addressed, as reported in “metroactive” on June 30:

        “The University of California invests $53 million in two diploma mills controlled by UC Regents chairman Richard C. Blum —

        The bottom line is that UC is investing tens of millions of public dollars in two for-profit school chains largely controlled by a regent and Wall Street arbitrager who sits on UC’s investment committee. Shown the documentation used to support this story Noah Stern, president of Associated Students at the University of California, says, “Student trust in the Regents was already shaky. In light of this revelation of investment abuse, we need a structural overhaul of the university governance system.”

      • Thanks for your response. I think you misinterpreted my remarks on tax dollars being spent wisely, my concern was that money might be wasted that could be going to the UC system. I am sorry that you thought I might have been insinuating something else, perhaps it was due to a poor choice of words on my part. At any rate, I have looked at some documentation on the on the budget and will be reading up on it some more.

  3. John:
    You are so right to recognize the five groups that still believe,that what they do is vital to hold the fabric of our society together,which you have stated before,were does that leave us? Are we as a people happy,angry,apathetic,scared of our Government, or to busy trying to make it everyday,that the average folks don,t have the energy to mount a popular movement,to remove the cancer that is embedded in the Politics of the day.In my opinion Americans are afraid of there Government because we still have a lot to lose if we Rebel.Catch 22.

  4. Rosemary:
    For many years I have grappled with every point you make.
    And all who read the many posts I have made can recognize,my incremental little points,about what is to be considered,I qualify myself, these are my opinions.I am obviously ignorant that another country could spend more money on Education than America.Unbelievable!They surly are #1 in math and science.Are we as a people so naive,that it will take another horrendous upheaval,which I think the Sixties were,and part of the seventies also, to retain a Constitutional Republic? [You were gracious in your response to my unprvoked

  5. America spends more money per capita than any country,yet produces Block heads like me who were left behind.Pushed through by lazy school systems who were remiss,and did not have the vision to find ways to help those who needed fundamental direction.This is a huge source of my venom,clearly noticeable.A good attentive mind is a terrible thing left behind.Deal with it I am the anomaly that may be the rule rather than the exception.

    • Carl, due to the failures of our elected politicians and out of control greed the most difficult and important jobs in our society today are military, police, fire, medical and teaching.

      Far too many good people are screwed by politics and incompetent administrators, and it is a tribute to these people that we don’t have a totally dysfunctional society yet.

      The last time large numbers of citizens fought back with any major success was in the 60s and 70s when we demanded and achieved civil rights and equal opportunities for all.

      But we let down our guard, we are losing ground and it is time once again to fight for our future. That’s really what Democracy is supposed to be all about.

    • Carl, the US doesn’t actually spend more money per capita on education than any other country. A study in 2003 reported that “Norway leads the group again with an estimated $2,850 per capita spent on education. The United States ranks second at approximately $1,780. The top five also include France, The Netherlands and Canada. Each spent more than $1,200 in education per capita in 2001.”

      This is the beginning of our national educational tragedy. Then add to that a funding model for kindergarten to 12th grade is based on localized taxes supporting schools, so that we have a patchwork of rich schools and poor schools, so that students in different schools do not have the same access to a good education.

      You are not a block head. I understand that. I take seriously your feeling that the US education system has failed you. But what you need to remember is who is responsible: not the teachers (even those who directly disappointed you) and certainly not professors in state universities. The retreat from funding education and providing a decent level of opportunity came from politicians cynical enough to exploit class and racial divides and from a citizenry that is too short-sighted to understand that education is an investment in all our success.

      • “The retreat from funding education and providing a decent level of opportunity came from politicians cynical enough to exploit class and racial divides and from a citizenry that is too short-sighted to understand that education is an investment in all our success.”

        Professor Joyce, your statement is a most important truth about what is going most wrong with our civilization today.

        I submit two more quotes to further emphasize consequences of ongoing failure of our civilization:

        “All of our marvelous innovations for the well-being of humanity could be in vain if we cannot curb our destruction of the environment and each other. It seems that our technology has not only outstripped our biology, but it is going beyond our cultural ability to control it.”
        Quote from Footsteps Through Time: Four Million Years of Human Evolution, 2003 publication by the San Diego Museum of Man

        “Public corruption poses a fundamental threat to our national security and way of life. It impacts everything from how well our borders are secured and our neighborhoods protected…to verdicts handed down in courts…to the quality of our roads, schools, and other government services. And it takes a significant toll on our pocketbooks, wasting billions in tax dollars every year.”
        Quote from FBI statement on Public Corruption Threatens “soul and fabric” of U.S., published in Yahoo! News

  6. We do have a comment policy for this site that says
    * Stay on topic. We will remove posts that rant far afield.
    * Be civil and respectful of others, even if you disagree with their posts.
    * Don’t get personal.
    Many websites have comment sections that have deteriorated into off-topic and hostile exchanges. We are trying to do something different here — listening and maybe even learning from one another.

    Jeff Kahn, Editor of The Berkeley Blog

  7. Bad arguments Bla,Bla, Bla Your lame defensive posture about the cost of labor being the driving force behind the high cost of Education is Bull! When the big banks found that they could make it easy for students to borrow and make Education a Wall street commodity,they jumped on it.This is it in a nut shell!The middle class has not had any appreciable increase in earnings in thirty years.The upper class could not only pay the tuition,but credit card bills that are now common for grads.On and average 12,000 this is your ruse,blame labor which is you Professors,yes you!you got cost of living increases,when the middle class did not.Now you make 200,000 GS per year plus binnies.How much did you make thirty years ago?Yes you are one of the defining problems with Education, you cost to much.America is seventeenth in math and,science do you feel proud.You are inflationary and a poor bang for the buck however;you will be with the rich in this coming perfect storm,And we will be pondering what our options are,what do you think we will think our options are? Barricade your selfs.Their are 26,000,000 veterans in America today,they know many things you could only shiver at.It would appear that soon the die will be cast.Which side will you come down on? Communism,socialism,moderate,fascist, conservative.———–Thinker? Constitutionalist,Elitist,Oligarchy,Anarchy,American with values you have leaned in this place that nurtured you? I would be interested in replies that are civil,and anecdotal.

    • Assuming that you are attacking me personally, which seems to be the case, I hardly think requesting a civil reply is in order. But I will give you one anyway.

      I have outlined the research explaining why college faculty and even staff have seen their compensation increase in depth because it is complicated and I think important material. Economically, this is in fact accurate. Anyone with a college education currently has an advantage in compensation, whether they are faculty or work in the private sector.

      That said, people working in educational institutions earn less than they could if they were in the private sector, with the same degree. So to argue that faculty are over-compensated is to ignore the fact that faculty accept lower earnings because they want to contribute to higher education.

      People teaching in universities do not on average earn $200,000, and I wonder where you got that figure. A beginning (Step I) Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley would earn around $53,000; the national averages for Assistant Professors are around $60,000-65,000. The standard salary scale at the highest step, which would take someone more than 40 years to reach, tops off at $142,000.

      Blaming the low performance of pre-collegiate students in international science and math on college faculty makes no sense. By the time we get students, we teach them science and math as appropriate for their field of study. Because the US does not adequately fund K-12 education, and because we place obstacles in the way of teachers including forcing them to teach to standardized tests, our pre-collegiate education system fails students. But colleges don’t cause that effect.

      I frankly find the hostility of your comment gets in the way of understanding the points you are trying to make, so if you have further points to which you want a reply, try to repeat them without the threats, please.

  8. I am also thinking along the lines of Steve’s comments. I went to college only 10yrs ago for a semester price of $1200 and today I’m back in the same university with a tuition price of $3500 at the same university. How can an increase of over $2000 in the last 10yrs be justified? I understand inflation but isn’t this a bit out of control? I’ve also attended a community college 10yrs ago for $700/semester and it was the best education I’ve ever gotten. So mine & Steve’s questions have yet to be answered. How can this triple tuition cost over 10yrs be justified? I’ve heard many returning students as well as myself that believe education was better 10yrs ago too.

    • I can only refer you to the reply to Steve’s original comment. Note that none of the research I cite, nor my overall response, has claimed that cost increases in higher education are just inflation. Where inflation comes in is when the 1970s saw college tuition become relatively less expensive (because tuition did not grow at the rate of inflation.

      Tuition rises at public universities in the most recent period reflect the need to replace state funds (which have been slashed) just to keep even. Ten years ago, you paid less of the actual cost of your education; the state provided a larger proportion. This is what this quote in my reply to Steve is about:

      “Increasing public funding allows higher quality programs at a constant tuition. Higher tuition permits better offerings at existing subsidy levels. In the face of upward cost pressures, capping tuition increases while holding per-student public subsidies constant must reduce quality.”

      The costs of providing education have increased as well. There is more (and more expensive) technology to maintain; on older campuses deferred maintenance costs have to be covered, and on expanding campuses, new construction or remodeling to accommodate students has to take place; and in California, schools must earthquake retrofit buildings.

      And then there is the cost of labor. “Costs for high-education service workers, in other words, do not behave like the costs for manufactured goods.” “Starting in the early 1980s, having a college education began to have a positive effect on earnings, and faculty salaries rose like those of other college-educated workers. And even the non-faculty workers in universities today are likely to have multiple years of college education.” To oversimplify, college-educated workers command higher wages throughout the economy; so even though universities pay college-educated workers lower wages than they would get in private sector jobs, the competition for college-educated workers raises wages.

      Now, if you want to resent that, fine. There are plenty of ideologues encouraging an anti-intellectualism and resentment of people who, because they have invested the time and money to increase their educational qualifications, have higher salaries. But it makes more sense to consider this educational dividend in the future as one of the benefits you as a student in going to college will enjoy in the future.

      Personally, I think society should create systems to invest in college educations for all those interested and qualified and take this important experience out of the realm of commodities.

  9. Education is a business – but splitting the sector into two separate components – one for rich people and one for poor – is not the best way to do things. This is becoming more of an issue in the UK now, where universities are going to be able to charge whatever they want, effectively limiting the choice of uni for students to which ones they can afford, not which ones they are talented enough to cope with.

  10. I always wondered why the cost of a good education is so high, that only those with ”the money” can afford it and they never study… just doing it for the image and because ”daddy say so”.
    And Liza, NO, Britain is not offering the cheapest education, but certainly has the advantage of a good recognition oversee.
    Anyway.. apart from being a good business, those who develop an education institute should also get attentive to those talents that makes their BRAND famous. Give a chance to those who are smart and well prepared, even if they are broke. Study should be free for the smartest people on the campus.

  11. It is concerning to see that education is not considered high priority by politicians and has even been commoditized. Education is not a commodity that can be measured in output and efficiency numbers. And those who provide education, like you, cannot be asked to make mountains out of ant hills. Our country has seen a decline in the education level of our students, relative to where it once was. Politicians should view education provider’s salaries not as an expense in a monthly budget report, but as an investment in our future. The crowded classrooms and overworked teachers and professors should be provided with the tools to make sure the all those of the next generation who truly desire to learn can.

  12. There are many ways costs could be reduced within Universities. For a start, academics could share more teaching resources. The fact is most do not. They believe they “own” materials and teaching aids they produce, which they dont, the University does. If these resources were shared, then a lot of duplication (waste) would be reduced.

    Secondly, most Universities are not really pushing online education and resources the way they ought to, the main reson for that is that academics feel threatened by it. Distance education / blended learning could reduce costs substantially but many academics fear it could put them out of a job (and they may be right). The more re-usable and cheaply distributed “academic components” become, the less important individuals become in the process.

    Actually that is not correct, a smaller number of people become hugely important, but people currently dishing out the same old same old course / materials time after time without providing any additional value would find themselves in a very sticky situation.

    Either way, I think that Universities are deliberately slow when it comes to distributing / sharing / giving away their resources. They should learn from initiatives like “open content” and compete on the quality of their one to one rather than paying year on year for repetitive / duplicated tasks.

    • Actually, none of these assertions make any sense. But this is probably what some of those hostile to public education think, and regrettably, arguments like this, with their over-confident but unfounded claims, can seem convincing to the general public.

      The fundamental mistake Hamilton is making is equating education with a product.

      Education is not a product. It is an experience, and that experience cannot be made cheaper by reusing what Hamilton calls “academic components”. University education, in particular, is not like an assembly line. This is one of the distinctions drawn by the researchers whose work I cited in my original post.

      Nor is it true that academics do not share teaching resources. I would have been hard-pressed to even understand the claim had Hamilton not helpfully clarified it: he imagines that each of us creates teaching materials and “aids” that we hold close as property. In fact, I and every other academic I know at the university level develops course materials in part by building on the syllabi of others. One of the professional societies in my subdiscipline of archaeology, the Society for American Archaeology, sponsored a project that produced a shared resource for teaching a wide range of courses. I have a blog dedicated to sharing with people the syllabus, teaching strategies, and assignments for a course I developed, “The Archaeology of Sex and Gender”. And there are many other examples I could give.

      What is true is that no matter how close one course topic is to another, each university professor has to redevelop the materials to teach it. There are always different emphases, specific ways of teaching that are appropriate to your own students, and even such differences as the length of a semester. In fact, even teaching the same course myself, I revise it every year, to incorporate new publications, new ways of teaching, and new things I learn from previous teaching. That repeated refinement is the quality aspect of teaching that Hamilton just doesn’t get. Producing my own version of course materials is not waste: it is what students deserve, and it is what is at risk when learning is thought of as a product.

      I have no idea where Hamilton draws his authority to deduce the motivations of academics, but I find his claim about digitally mediated teaching equally unfounded. Nice prejudice, no facts. First of all: good distance learning has yet to actually reduce costs where it is adopted in universities with sufficient support for quality. Digitally mediated learning is great to reach under-served communities; it may one day, in conjunction with face-to-face contact, be more common and taken for granted. But that will be because academics now are demanding that these new technologies not be used simply to “push online” without safe-guarding the quality of education. Introductory courses in my subdiscipline include labs where students handle equipment, collections, and actually do the work of a professional. How do you give solely online students that experience?

      Finally, we get to the offensive and contradictory characterization of “people currently dishing out the same old course / materials time after time”. Um, well, no. Notice that the idea of academics not sharing materials is untrue precisely because each of us revise and renew courses every time we teach. Yet that is what impedes the kind of mechanistic efficiencies that Hamilton is calling for.

      Hamilton may think that universities pay for “repetitive / duplicated tasks”, but what faculty are paid to do is create learning environments where each semester an entirely new group of students with diverse capacities, backgrounds, and interests can engage with the ever-changing state of knowledge. In a research university like Berkeley, students do so under the guidance of faculty who are working on the advance edge of new knowledge, which is often introduced into the classroom as it is being formulated. The excitement, intellectual fervor, and generalizable skills for learning and conducting research that we foster are the only “duplicated” content. And that is what makes for a quality education.

  13. Thanks for the great article! I believe in education should be invested as much funding as part of the State and with private individuals. Otherwise we’ll keep face with certain problems!

  14. I believe Britain offers the cheapest education because Nursery, Primary, Secondary and Further Education is FREE. Higher Education such as University level does cost but isn`t that expensive because students get help with funding through agencies.

    • Or the business is the best education. This can go both ways, you know. Many people recently have stopped going to college and are working for themselves, earning more money than any college or university graduate would ever do (unless you’re a brain surgeon, that is).
      Just sayin…


      • Jo, actually, the proportion of high school students going on to college is at an all-time high; the New York Times reported that in 2009, 70% of high school graduates were college bound, and about 92% of these were full-time students.

        While there are individual exceptions, most people who head into the job market without a college degree are not Bill Gates. US Government statistics show that

        Workers 18 and over sporting bachelors degrees earn an average of $51,206 a year, while those with a high school diploma earn $27,915. … Workers with an advanced degree make an average of $74,602, and those without a high school diploma average $18,734.

        The same statistical sources show that the higher the level of education, the higher the lifetime earnings a person can expect.

  15. There are two ways to respond to the comment from Steve. The first is to point out that there actually have been changes in what universities do since the 1960s and 1970s, and a lot of these changes cost money– money to introduce, then money to maintain. And those costs have to be paid for. Think, for example, of the introduction of ubiquitous computing throughout universities– used for library catalogues, course websites, communication among students and faculty and staff, and so much more. Or the more extensive student support services for everything from mental health to career development. I didn’t give my students less personal attention ten years ago, but they certainly are enjoying a wider range of services, and services unimagined when I was a scholarship student as an undergraduate in the 1970s.

    But costs for new or improved services, and for other things like building new facilities to cope with increased numbers of students, new forms of instruction, or just needing to pay for work on buildings with roofs or other systems that reached the end of expected use-life, is only part of the story.

    The major costs in universities are the costs of labor, which one article published in 2008 in the Journal of Higher Education (vol. 79, no. 3) estimates make up 70-80% of the cost of higher education. This article, “Explaining Increases in Higher Education Costs” (Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman, provides an explanation of the long term trend in costs of higher education based on the concept of “cost disease” that is typical of “service industries that use highly educated labor” (p. 270), a description they show matches universities quite well. Higher education, they note, is a good example of an industry in which “for all practical purposes the labor is itself the end product” so that “productivity gains are either hard to achieve or would be considered decreases in quality” (p. 272). Costs for high-education service workers, in other words, do not behave like the costs for manufactured goods. It is generally harder to increase the output of high quality labor in service occupations: the authors cite the example of a half hour musical performance of a horn quintet that “calls for the expenditure of 2.5 man hours… any attempt to increase productivity here is likely to be viewed with concern by critics and audiences alike” (p. 273).

    The authors of this article provide a long term look at the actual history of costs of higher education from 1929 to 1995. Their Figure 3 shows that real costs per student rose steadily between about 1950 and 1970, then leveled off and actually fell throughout the 1970s. Starting in the early 1980s, costs per student began to rise again. They write

    “In the aftermath of the Second World War, public funds began flowing into higher education. This period saw the expansion of the role of government that persists to this day. Public higher education expanded dramatically, and cost per FTE student rose.” (p. 278).

    In contrast, “the decade starting in 1972 was a period of slow productivity growth….there were important changes in the relationship between wages and education. Between 1970 and the early 1980s, the average earnings of male workers with 5 or more years of college education fell approximately 20% in real terms. Faculty salaries tracked downward with them.” (pp. 278-279). Starting in the early 1980s, having a college education began to have a positive effect on earnings, and faculty salaries rose like those of other college-educated workers. And even the non-faculty workers in universities today are likely to have multiple years of college education.

    About ten years earlier, Donald E. Heller, also writing in the Journal of Higher Education (vol. 68, no. 6, 1997) outlined a history of changes in tuition charges starting in the 1970s:

    “In the latter half of the 1970s, tuition prices at both public and 4-year private institutions fell in real terms, because tuition increases did not keep pace with the double-digit inflation of this period. In the 1980s, real tuition rose in all sectors, but at a faster rate in private colleges. While the 1990s have seen a slowing of the rate of growth of private college tuitions, the rate at public colleges has increased. This occurred at a time when incomes in the country have stagnated, and the income gap between rich and poor families has widened.” (“Student Price Response in Higher Education”).

    In other words: the 1970s saw college tuition become relatively less expensive, so using that decade as a baseline will guarantee that increases in tuition look particularly dramatic; public university tuition began to catch back up in the 1990s, at a time when economic policies were producing greater economic stratification and salaries stopped increasing in general, but during a period when the advantage of having a college education reversed a previous trend and began to increase.

    In the conclusion of their article, Archibald and Feldman (2008:291) pose the dilemma facing all of us:

    “The larger problem for colleges and universities is that policymakers often behave as though these two control levers [holding public subsidies constant and capping tuition increases] are completely independent of the third basic feature of the American higher education system, which is quality. In fact, within the existing technology for service delivery, decisions to manipulate two of these must affect the third. This is the unholy trinity of higher education finance. Increasing public funding allows higher quality programs at a constant tuition. Higher tuition permits better offerings at existing subsidy levels. In the face of upward cost pressures, capping tuition increases while holding per-student public subsidies constant must reduce quality.”

    Or to quote their earlier argument to the same effect:

    “Cost control cannot be achieved without productivity growth. The problem in higher education is that productivity growth often is synonymous with lower quality. Adding more students to each class can diminish the benefit for each student, leading to diminished outcomes and lower graduation rates. Increasing the number of courses a professor teaches would reduce research or community service.” (p. 270-271)

  16. Perhaps what has happened to education is a result of the rise in cost of support services and maintenence. In addition a mind set that education can be best measured through standardized testing, which is an industry of its own. What is needed is a shift in thinking: that knowledge is intrisicaly valuable.

  17. I wish this post had talked about why it’s more expensive every year than the year before. The cost of education (not just the price, but the underlying cost) has been rising MUCH faster than inflation for decades. Was Rosemary Joyce not giving her students personal attention ten years ago?

    My parents went to college in the 60s and 70s, for like one-tenth of the current inflation-adjusted cost. They had challenges, they had long deep conversations with their professors, they got a world-class, well-rounded education (at private colleges). What has changed since then…that’s responsible for 90% of the current cost now paid by taxpayers and students?

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