Transparency and Technology

A recent article in The Economist, “Is College Worth It?,” takes the usual narrow view of the value of higher education as a return on investment – graduates’ earnings minus the cost of college – at various institutions for different types of degrees (humanities, engineering, science, etc).

Making this this type of information available to students and parents is said to create transparency to improve decision-making. Information of this type has always been available – though perhaps in two places, not one – so transparency has always existed. What is new is focus on the utilitarian value of a college degree and the misapplication of the return on investment (ROI) calculation to higher education.

What caught my eye was a sentence in the last paragraph:

 “In time, transparency and technology will force many colleges to cut costs and raise quality.”

Transparency has been around for a long time, as has technology (remember distance ed?), and neither has forced colleges to cut costs and raise quality (see “Making College Cost Less,” which makes the simple-minded argument that technology is the key to lower costs). In many institutions, credit-bearing online courses cost as much or more than traditional classroom courses.

Quality, understood as an absence of errors, is largely absent as presidents, provosts, and deans concern themselves with other matters. It is not sufficient for them to characterize higher ed affordability as “minimizing tuition price increases,” nor has it ever been appropriate to assume that quality is a given because highly educated people are doing the work. Likewise, it is faulty to assume that technology alone will lower costs, or that the solution to financial problems is simply to replace lost state funding with private philanthropy. Improving administrative and academic processes is of paramount importance.

Lean management remains the most sensible approach to improving quality and reducing costs in ways that do not harm people and which improve value for students and payers.

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