Why College Tuition is Growing So Fast
Artificial intelligence guru Patrick Henry Winston, who has been involved with MIT as either a student or faculty member since 1961, notes that tuition increases at the venerable technical school have radically outpaced inflation during that period.
So relative to the rest of the economy, MIT’s educational productivity has lagged behind by a factor of about 2.75 over the past 50 years.
I’m not really surprised. The last great technical contribution to education was the development of fast, cheap copying machines and before that the invention of the printing press in 1440. I don’t count computers, because I think that, for the most part, they just make us stupid. Education remains labor intensive out of proportion to just about everything else.
Also, there is the matter of growing administration. A while ago, the sometimes acerbic Philip Greenspun ’82, SM ’93, PhD ’99 poked around and found that in 1969, MIT employed 962 faculty and 622 administrators. During the past twenty years, the faculty has been stable at about 1,000, an insignificant 4% more than the 1969 number, while administration has grown from about 1,000 to about 1,800, almost three times the 1969 number and a presumably larger multiple of the 1961 number. Interestingly, in 1961, administrators had no productivity-multiplying computers; the only computer was the IBM 7090, in building 26, with impressive tape drives, shown off behind large glass windows along the hallway.
Winston who, among other things, lectures on “How to Speak,” figures the average MIT student is paying the equivalent per hour cost of the “best tickets at the Metropolitan Opera and good tickets at Rolling Stones Concerts,” so professors ought spend a lot of time rehearsing their performances. That much, presumably, is tongue-in-cheek. Whether they’re getting $50,000 a year worth, MIT’s students get more (and less!) than entertainment for their money.
His other points — that education is labor intensive compared to other industries and that the administrative overhead is increasingly expensive — are less amusing but more interesting.
On his homepage, Winston asserts, “I believe technology will take university education through a period of instability—what Andy Grove would call a 10X period—as new educational technology is introduced for the first time since the invention of movable type. This period of instability coincides with a window of global scientific opportunity and engineering challenge.” This is fascinating and he’s certainly better positioned to project this than I am.
While I’ve seen extraordinary technology-driven progress in the ability of faculty to do research, I’ve seen very little impact on teaching. True, there’s increased ability to deliver lectures and interact with students across space and time. But little advancement seems possible in the ability of professors to increase their bandwidth. The number of papers one can grade, students one can advise, and so forth at a level of high quality remains bounded by time and energy. So, I’m not sure how teaching will get less labor intensive.
Doubtless, increased regulation and reporting requirements have contributed to the growing bureaucracy which seems to plague most institutions of higher learning. Even middling schools have half a dozen vice presidents these days.
UPDATE: To be clear, Winston only addresses some parts of the issue. In the case of state institutions, the declining government contribution to covering the costs has necessitated raising tuition. In the case of the highest prestige private institutions, of which MIT is surely one, I suspect that simple supply and demand is the main factor. That is, the demand for the signaling and network effects of these degrees is soaring and there are more than enough parents willing to pay the freight at these prices. (And MIT and their elite counterparts tend to offer subsidies and discounts to a huge percentage of their classes to account for those who can’t.)
via Andrew Samwick