The Hard Road To Higher Ed Innovation

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By Matthew Cameron

Yesterday’s Brookings Institution event “PhDs, Policies and Patents” focused on ways the government can invest in research and technology that will spur innovation and lead to long-term economic growth. Although much of the discussion had to do with biomedical advancements and infrastructure development, the lessons from the conference relate to higher education as well. Specifically, there is tremendous potential to use online technology to lower the skyrocketing cost of college attendance. This is necessary because expanding access to higher education is a surefire way to boost innovation and the nation’s economic prospects – individuals who graduate from college conduct more research, develop more technologies, and earn higher incomes than non-degree holders.

Unfortunately, a combination of skewed incentives, backwards priorities and traditionalist mindsets make this a difficult objective to achieve. Universities have little reason to cut costs because their reputations directly benefit from higher per student academic spending. So even if a school achieves cost savings without sacrificing quality – say, by replacing large, intro-level lectures with online courses – it will be regarded as less prestigious by many ranking methodologies. Public colleges face an additional problem. State support for higher education has declined steadily during the past few decades, and recent budget crises have exacerbated this trend. This means that if public schools save money by embracing online courses, state legislatures likely will view it as an opportunity to further reduce their appropriations to higher education. This means the benefits of cost savings would not accrue to students through reduced tuition but rather to state governments that could avoid raising taxes or cutting other services. Finally, university faculty view online technology as a threat to their role at the heart of the higher education system. This was evident during an exchange between George Mason University Prof. Tyler Cowen and Stanford University Prof. Tim Bresnahan at yesterday’s conference. When Cowen raised the possibility of universities employing fewer professors once online courses are widespread, Bresnahan responded defensively by asserting that he does more than just teach.

Obviously, Bresnahan has a point – the specialized expertise and personalized guidance that professors can convey to students in higher-level college courses truly is indispensible. For entry-level lectures with hundreds of students, however, faculty members often don’t do much more than teach. They don’t grade papers, they don’t meet their students and they aren’t able to delve into the finer details of the subjects they teach. These classes aren’t just a waste of students’ money, however; they’re also a drain on professors’ time. If they were freed from their obligation to teach such classes, professors would be able to devote more effort toward their niche in the higher education system – stimulating students’ intellectual curiosity through personal interactions and engaging learning experiences.

All of which is to say the problem the U.S. faces today isn’t how to make higher education more affordable. Rather, it’s convincing various groups that doing so will benefit them.