Why professors can't improve their productivity

After I posted about the book Why Does College Cost So Much? yesterday, I got a note from Rand Park, director of corporate relations for the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

He pointed me to a 2003 article from The New Yorker. It focuses on a phenomenon, mentioned in the book, that is a main factor behind the rising price of higher education: “cost disease.”

(Economists apparently call it “Baumol’s cost disease,” after NYU economist William Baumol, who explained it in the 1960s.)

He wrote me, calling the article:

… one of the most succinct and easily-digestible pieces I have ever read on the topic.

So, to the main argument — which has implications for online education:

Baumol explained that many services, unlike manufacturing, don’t experience productivity gains (such as those gained through technology) that would lead to lower cost. The New Yorker uses his example of musicians to illustrate the argument:

When Mozart composed his String Quintet in G Minor (K. 516), in 1787, you needed five people to perform it—two violinists, two violists, and a cellist. Today, you still need five people, and, unless they play really fast, they take about as long to perform it as musicians did two centuries ago. So much for progress.

And musicians aren’t alone:

In a number of industries, workers produce about as much per hour as they did a decade or two ago. The average college professor can’t grade papers or give lectures any faster today than he did in the early nineties. It takes a waiter just as long to serve a meal, and a car-repair guy just as long to fix a radiator hose.

So compensation continues to rise over time because those who hire such professionals (especially highly skilled workers such as doctors, lawyers and professors) need to pay them enough to keep them from going elsewhere.

The main point — and one raised by Minnesota higher education officials time after time in legislative budget-cut hearings — is made in the article:

To lower prices you have to lower quality.

And that’s the warning that the authors of Why Does College Cost So Much? give about online education. From a University of Washington summary of the book:

While they think that better integrating technology with instruction will produce marginal gains, online education is unlikely to revolutionize the industry unless post-secondary teaching is totally redefined. Unintended consequences could include:

  • Static course content in an ever-changing world
  • A shrunken research enterprise
  • Inability to recruit the brightest minds to work as online-only instructors
  • Declining focus on teaching critical thinking skills as opposed to facts and figures