using technology to cut the costs of college

Anya Kamenetz has a good article in The American Prospect about the need for colleges and universities to cut costs. The problem isn’t just predatory lenders or cheap state legislatures; the real costs of college are rising far too fast and imposing unjust burdens on young people and their families. A major cause is probably the failure of higher education to achieve efficiencies that have cut costs in manufacturing and service industries. If everything else gets more efficient, but your activity doesn’t, you become more expensive. That’s the situation with both medical care and higher education.

Kamenetz is excited about initiatives like MIT’s Open Courseware, which is an impressive repository of materials created at MIT that can be used free anywhere else. The materials include notes, syllabuses, readings, illustrations, problem sets, and assignments. It is generous and helpful for MIT to contribute in the way (sometimes at a cost of $15,000 or more for each course, as Kamenetz notes). But the benefits will be substantial only if (a) the expense of developing course materials is normally a significant component of tuition, and (b) “courseware” can be used effectively by faculty who didn’t develop it in the first place. Both premises are possible, but I’m not overly optimistic.

I see two opportunities that might be more important.

First, I’m obsessed by the sheer number of people who are employed per student at particularly expensive colleges and universities. For instance, Harvard employs 2,163 faculty, 5,102 administrators and professional staff, and 4,800 clerical and technical workers for its 19,500 students. Only 18 percent of the total work force are professors. There are three students for every five workers. (I’m counting graduate students as students, even though most also teach, so the ratio is even higher.) Thus I wonder whether there could be significant efficiencies in administration. On the other hand, it may be that most of the administrative and professional staff are involved in externally funded research or clinical medicine, in which case shrinking their numbers doesn’t cut the cost of education.

Second, I do see prospects for new types of course that would be based on computers, would be cheap per student, and would complement the rest of the curriculum. Imagine that we continued to offer a college education that was broadly similar to what we provide today, with seminars, lectures, labs, and office hours. But students were expected to take one course that was a large-scale simulation of a complex phenomenon. They might, for example, be asked to play various roles (appropriate to their majors) in a fictional town that faced a health emergency. Students would have to conduct research, plan, and communicate as part of playing this game. Developing it would be extremely expensive (if it was any good), but it could be offered nationally at a marginal price of just a few dollars per student. Small local teams of faculty could customize the game for their own campus.

I wouldn’t want the computer to do the grading, but it could dramatically cut the costs of assessment by tracking the completion of assignments and scoring multiple-choice tests, leaving only writing to be hand-graded. If ten percent of students’ credits were earned in such courses, the saving would be almost ten percent of tuition. And if these courses were offered in residential universities along with traditional seminars, lectures, and labs, there would be little loss of face-to-face learning and community.

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