Solving the tuition problem

Keeping tuition low requires more than another check from the legislature.

by Derek Olson

Last week University President Eric Kaler proposed a two-year tuition freeze contingent on increased funding from the state Legislature. I wonder who the scapegoat will be if tuition rises! In fact, it’s easy to blame the government for fiscal woes at our universities and local K-12 schools, but budget cuts to education are not the overall trend. Total education spending in the U.S., adjusted for inflation, tripled between 1970 and 2009. In addition, private schools that don’t rely on public funding are having the same tuition problem. There’s a deeper issue that needs attention. Our education system is diseased. No, that’s not a  hyperbole, it’s an economic diagnosis. Education in America has a bad case of Baumol’s cost disease.

In the 1960s, economists William Baumol and William Bowen discovered that over time service industries that did not see increases in productivity still saw rising wages in order to compete with wages in sectors that did see increased productivity. They examined a Mozart string quintet, which in the 18th century required five people and a certain number of minutes to perform. To this day Mozart’s quintet requires the same number of people and time to be produced. Despite seeing no improvement in efficiency for over 200 years, the wages that musicians demand for producing this music has risen sharply in that time.

Consider Ford Motor Co., the American automobile manufacturer. Ford once produced its cars with an assembly line of workers. Over time, many of those workers have been replaced by machines that cost less than human workers, work faster and make fewer mistakes. Ford now has the luxury of producing more cars at lower cost and higher quality.

No similar transformation has taken ahold of education. In order to increase the productivity of education, teachers are forced to teach more students, a result generally met with concerns over quality. Unlike Ford and much of the private sector that can simultaneously increase efficiency and quality, education is faced with a choice of one or the other. The crux of the problem is that wages for teachers must keep pace with the growth of wages in the broader, increasingly efficient economy.

Baumol’s cost disease shows that education will perpetually rise in cost faster than inflation, a pace that families of modest income cannot keep. However, it is shortsighted to think that more support from the government is a long-term solution. While increasing public funding in education is a smart investment, it’s not feasible to grow this commitment indefinitely.

I once had a professor who joked to the class, “the only reason you’re here listening to me and not learning this from Wikipedia is because I write the test.” His joke made me think on a deeper level about the various oddities in the way I’ve received my education. Recently, after missing a few physics lectures, I was able to find lessons of the same topic on YouTube. In the past, I’ve had classes that I didn’t attend for the entire semester because the teacher only repeated what I was already learning from the textbook. I took one of my calculus courses online, which was actually a book in the mail with easily understood instructions. It was basically a written lecture. Personal procrastination aside, I thought it a very convenient way to learn.

While these isolated incidents couldn’t happen for every class, they present some suggestive ideas. If a class only requires you to read a book and take a few tests, should you really have to pay thousands of dollars for the professor? The internet is full of phony information, but if you can separate fact from fiction, it’s an amazing educational device. We are in the age of communication, the epoch of easy access to information, but I don’t believe we are utilizing it to its potential.

Without strong public education, America will neither be able to compete in the global economy nor promote its ideal of equal opportunity. If we recognize Baumol’s cost disease, the perpetual dilemma of exorbitant cost against diminishing quality, merely maintaining the current strength of education will become too costly. If we are to see strong education persist far into the future, we will need a complete transformation of the entire system.

We need our brightest pedagogues thinking about how to fully utilize the multitude of technological resources available. This is deeper than clicker questions. Can we videotape a lecture and make it into an interactive computer program? What educational elements would be lost, and how could they be replaced? Perhaps you can never replace the benefit of classroom discussion, particularly for subjects such as literature and foreign language, however, we can neither assume this is true of all classroom experiences nor stop ourselves short of ingenuity.

There is no dearth of discourse on technology in education, but rarely is it applied to ideas of cost control. What I’m suggesting is no simple change. Education needs a revolution on a massive scale, and though I don’t know what that will look like, it will become more evident as university officials and local school boards find even less wiggle room between the rock of rising costs and the hard place of budget cuts. I’m calling for our most innovative minds to ask this question: Given the resources available, how do we transform education with quality assurance and cost effectiveness?