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My last post was on April 25th and while my intent was to do a weekly blog , it has become a 60-day blog. I apologize, but I have been busy.  In writing for this blog while at the same time teaching and writing academically, I needed to pause for new research. The interesting thing is that while I have posted nothing in 60 days, people keep on visiting the blog and re-reading the old stuff.

Over the past 60 days or so I have been reviewing data from OECD and other groups who have shared their findings with me.  I’ve been collecting the thoughts of students and parents about higher education, interviewing employers about what they expect and what they think they are getting from higher education. I have been visiting campuses that are planning to make significant changes in their operations in expectation of raising their productivity and I have also been speaking to groups at conferences.

Speaking to groups is also an “input” function for me, providing I listen carefully to those who comment and question. Over the next few weeks I hope to have some responses to some of the commentary that has been going around.

There’s a hypothesis out there made by a credible source, (Peter Theil) that we are in an education “bubble”, in many ways, just like the “dot-com” bubble and the “mortgage bubble, whereby people are persuaded through greed or ignorance to pay more for an item purchased as an “investment” than that item’s true worth. Thus, when the bubble explodes and values decrease, they loose a lot of money.

If indeed, a person invested years of his or her life and tens of thousands of dollars pursuing a degree only in the expectation that they would get it all back and more, then, for the time being, those who have completed their education this year, may get less that they had anticipated they would receive in return. But there’s little evidence that this condition will persist beyond the current crisis.

The value of a baccalaureate is set by the employer, following their understanding of the value of the education and the market for graduates in which they must compete. Right now employers are not hiring enough people at any price. The projection is (by Pew Research) is that when they resume hiring the salaries they will be offering will be 20% less than they were offering before the crisis.

I can’t buy that. The realities of the U.S. demographics and global competition will guarantee a stable demand over supply for graduates at both the undergraduate and graduate level which will maintain the price (wages) the employer will pay. The cost side is another matter. There’s no doubt that the cost of education to the student is inflated, but (recently at least) that has less to do with the increase in operating costs at institutions of higher education than at the decline in state support of higher education which acted as a subsidy.

Higher education needs to increase its productivity, if not to avoid a bubble, certainly to remain competitive worldwide. I’ve been reviewing all the productivity schemes that are out there and very few of them make any sense.

The dream of “packaging courses” (this time the digital packager is Carnegie Mellon University) to be offered by less expensive faculty at other campuses has been resuscitated but it does not work to increase value (quality) and eventually it will die as did the previous attempt by the Annenberg Foundation.

Most universities are currently processing a “bubble” of their own as the population demographics are seeing the retirements of a greater number of professors than in the previous decade. This will lower teaching costs as the new faculty is likely to cost less and may be persuaded to teach more, but teaching is only one of the duties of faculty and without as much knowledge creation and community service, universities are less valuable to the culture.

Thus by another measure of productivity, universities with large turnovers this decade, will produce less value for our economy. These productivity schemes are also likely to do nothing about the two major issues facing higher education that is, what percentage of the students who enter college ultimately graduate and how long does it take for them to complete a baccalaureate.