Against ‘Technology!’ as Tuition Panacea

by Thomas A. Shakely

Aaron Bady, an academic and blogger from Oakland, Calif.., has written fairly extensively on the crisis in higher education. In so doing, he hit upon what I consider one of the most important, perhaps obvious, but least generally understood facts about the nature of rising costs in education:

Tuition is rising, they notice, so the cost of education must be rising. And yet isn’t it strange that in the same period of time in which tuition has risen, steadily and consistently, we have also seen the steady and consistent replacement of tenured full time faculty with part time and contingent faculty in those same universities? Which is to say, as costs of instruction have fallen dramatically, the price of an education has risen!

Shock! Could it be that universities are acting like corporations? Could it be they’re focusing on the bottom line by minimizing expenditures and charging as much as the market will hold? And could it be that, since the market demand for a college education is extremely robust, universities are able to charge quite a [lot] of money and the fact that they are, in fact, is the reason that tuition, fees, and student debt are all rising? As a passenger in the “University of California” section of the Titanic that is American higher ed, I’m pretty much convinced that this is the case.

. . . The market will bear it, so that’s how education gets priced.

While this point is certainly not revelatory for Phi Beta Cons readers, it’s perhaps the central point missed by every “student leader” working to redress skyrocketing tuition and fees from Boston to Berkeley. They just don’t get it.

Bady condenses his point in the comments section of his post, and in doing so establishes what should probably be required reading for every college trustee, faculty activist, state appropriator, and student leader:

Myglesias [Commenter]: Are you denying that if we could reduce the per student cost of producing undergraduate education that this would facilitate cheaper tuition?

[Aaron Bady]: The short answer is yes. Tuition prices are not rising because the cost of educating students is rising (because it isn’t); they are rising because the market will bear it and because administrators in both private and public universities are willing to charge it. Which means, in turn, that there’s no necessary reason to think that lowering the cost of educating students will reverse the trend.

Bingo. Taking education “open source” (another of Bady’s points) or deploying new technology and mobile learning-type innovations — whether on the college, high school, or elementary levels — will not in itself reduce the price of schooling, because that price is not well correlated with the cost of delivering the education.

The problem stems from market models being applied where they don’t belong (requiring profit justifications for maintaining the humanities), and an absence of market models where they do, in fact, belong.