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
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the post Alex. I’m not buying the possible “unintended consequences” of online education just because the UW authors want me to.

    1. They say: “Static course content in an ever-changing world”

    BD: My experience has been that online instructors are constantly updating and renewing their course content – something that I rarely saw in a traditional classroom. 10-y-o, ragged-around-the-edges lecture notes are not a myth; they’re a reality in many F2F classrooms.

    2. They say: “A shrunken research enterprise”

    BD: I say hallelujah to that – at least in some fields. I wrote a post a couple of days ago asking why the state of Minnesota employs about 50 academic researchers in the accounting field. I am totally baffled as to how that’s a good use of taxpayer dollars.

    3. They say: “Inability to recruit the brightest minds to work as online-only instructors”

    BD: Might depend on what you mean by the “brightest minds.” Online-only instructors are often those who love to teach but also have other pursuits that keep them busy and engaged. The flexibility of online teaching gives them the opportunity to do so. The good online faculty members will generally tell you that they work harder teaching online than on-ground, and if so, then they’re choosing to do it because the benefits outweigh the costs (generally). Online-only instructors often do it for the good feeling they get when they help provide access to education to those people who cannot otherwise engage in the traditional model. That might not make them the brightest minds, but they’re the kind of people I would want working for me.

    4. They say: “Declining focus on teaching critical thinking skills as opposed to facts and figures.”

    BD: In 12 years of being involved in online education, I have seen no evidence whatsoever that there is a kernel of truth in this statement. Show me the money.

    Sounds like a whole bunch of FUD to me. Of course I could be wrong.

    • Anonymous

      You bring up some good points, Barry. I’d like to dig into the book, but here’s my interpretation of what they’re saying:

      Transforming online education to the point where it would experience enough of a productivity gain that it drives down costs would require almost an assembly-line approach:

      — standardized curriculum (because changing it requires constant, costly assessment and reorganization);
      — more of a focus on teaching online, leaving research to a smaller, give-me-a-quick-and-proven-payoff operatioh (not always feasible when researching solutions that require years of trial-and-error experimentation);
      — the hiring of faculty who are interested in teaching online (who may have other pursuits and can’t devote themselves fully to their students — or research, for that matter); and
      — leaving behind the critical thinking that’s forged in the give-and-take of arguments in a classroom with lots of people contributing. You could replicate that online, I suppose. But I can imagine from my reading that it’s not the same. Also, it just takes a long time — and thus may not be as cost-effective (or efficient or productive) as just delivering facts and figures.

      I can see merit in your views. But I think the authors believe a transformation that would render online education a true model of productivity would require colleges to cut corners in all the things that make the college experience special.

      I think they have a plausible argument, though I’d like to think online education could prove them wrong.

  • Madradprof

    I might buy the cost disease argument if tenured professors were doing most of the teaching. But administrators have dealt with rising labor costs by casualizing teaching. Less than 30% of teaching staff in higher educations is composed of tenure-track faculty. While salaries for tenure-track faculty may be rising, adjuncts are poorly paid–I’d wager you could make more working retail than teaching a full load as an adjunct at the University of Minnesota. In the sciences, many faculty obtain large chunks of their salaries from grants and/or clinical services. So while it may be true that teaching and research have limited possibilities for productivity gains (without cutting quality), administrators have cut labor costs, so per dollar (if not per person) it could be argued that productivity–if measured by number of students taught and the amount of research performed–has probably been constant or rising.

  • Mark Plenke

    The four unintended consequences noted by the study authors can be just as true for face-to-face instruction if administrators choose to change the educational equation (class size, instructor qualifications, facilities, etc.).
    Here’s why I think these suppositions are flawed:
    * Static course content in an ever-changing world – Nothing in the nature of online instruction makes it more or less difficult to update instruction, materials or presentation.
    * A shrunken research enterprise – I don’t quite understand the argument here. Professors actually have more control over their time if they teach online.
    * Inability to recruit the brightest minds to work as online-only instructors – Some of the best instructors in our college system teach online, and they were predominant among the early adopters. I’d argue that it’s faculty willing to try teaching online who are “the brightest minds,” not those who aren’t.
    * Declining focus on teaching critical thinking skills as opposed to facts and figures – Discussion in my online courses is richer and better thought out than discussion in my face-to-face classes because a few vocal students can’t dominate the conversation and everyone is required to participate. There’s often much more writing required in an online course, a good indication that critical thinking is happening.