Is Productivity Growth Possible in Higher Education?

Here is an interesting summary of the productivity debate in higher education. The author is Andrew Kelly of The American Enterprise Institute, and it comes from the June 27th edition of The American.

Are Productivity Gains in Higher Education Possible

I feel free to comment because our book helps form one pole of the argument, according to Kelly.

To summarize the argument very briefly, Kelly contrasts the explainers, like us, who identify the reasons why college cost should be expected to rise more rapidly than the overall inflation rate, against the reformers who think large gains are possible if only better management practices could be implemented at colleges and universities.

My only small beef with the article is that the difference between the camps seems artificial. Those of us who elevate cost disease and other systemic causes for rising cost are not necessarily pessimistic about productivity growth. We do see a more limited scope for change, barring unforeseen tectonic shifts in how people view quality in higher education. The “reformers” often come from what Bob and I refer to as “the dysfunctionality narrative,” in which wasteful practices, prestige games, and gold plating needlessly drive up cost. Bob and I are critics of this dysfunction story, and our evidence convinces us that the scope for waste reduction is much smaller than the “reformers” suppose. Nonetheless, we see plenty of scope for reducing the trajectory of cost increases over time, even if we do not see the “death of cost disease” anywhere on the horizon. Our book does not explore the possibility of meaningful productivity change in any serious or systematic way because that task is a large one that deserves its own book.