Why hasn’t technology reduced college costs, as many outside observers expected? As you probably know, in most instances, online courses cost the same or more than their on-campus equivalent.
Even though the fully online universities are somewhat cheaper than many of their brick-and-mortar counterparts, these institutions are not much cheaper. From the student perspective, online colleges’ cost savings result mainly from faster time to degree thanks to generous policies for awarding credit for prior learning, not from lower up-front tuition.
The inability to significantly trim costs in higher education stands in stark contrast to the impact of technology on other industries, including publishing. The advent of new digital technologies radically reduced typesetting costs while making it much easier to outsource copyediting and shift printing overseas. At the same time, digital books produced an alternate distribution channel without imposing any additional printing costs. Some of the more entrepreneurial academic publishers also discovered that scholarly journals and databases could generate significant revenue.
The standard explanation for higher ed’s failure to take advantage of technology’s cost-saving potential is straightforward: technology did not reduce labor costs, whether for teaching or service provision, nor did it significantly reduce the need for physical plant. Indeed, technology represented an added expense as colleges and universities instituted new, costly platforms to manage finances, information flows, recordkeeping, HR, admissions and stakeholder relationships.
Rather than cutting costs, the pandemic-driven shift to remote service provision simply redistributed where work is performed and how services are accessed. It didn’t reduce labor costs or increase productivity. Whatever advantages ensued flowed to employees, by reducing time spent commuting to and from campus.
In theory, campuses might use technology to outsource various functions. To a very limited extent, for example, in terms of mental health support, this has occurred. But apart from online program management, I haven’t seen much outsourcing—even in areas where campus services, like advising, tutoring and career counseling, are grossly inadequate.
Could technology increase productivity or trim costs—or is that largely impossible due to Baumol’s cost disease: the fact that higher education is inherently labor-intensive?
In fact, technology does hold out the prospect of reducing costs while improving quality if—and this, of course, is a big if—colleges and universities are willing to rethink their practices.
Let me stress: I have no interest in replacing large lectures with MOOCs or offering standardized “master” classes taught by nonfaculty or putting more students into asynchronous “self-paced, self-directed” courses. These strategies will inevitably compromise quality.
So what, then, can be done?
1. Large in-person lecture classes with low levels of student-faculty interaction could be supplemented or replaced with higher-quality synchronous, scaled online classes. Synchronous, scaled online classes can be more rigorous, more engaging and more interactive than their in-person counterparts. The key, of course, is not to imitate, in an online format, a standard in-person lecture, but to radically reimagine the learning experience.
Divide the online experience into a series of shorter segments that intersperse brief lectures with interviews with guest experts; discussions or debates among a panel of experts; surveys, polls and questionnaires; videos and animations; and problem-solving activities, accompanied by small breakout sections and chat rooms (typically consisting of five to seven students led by a rotating leaders or moderators and accompanied by team, peer and self-evaluations to assess each team’s dynamics and performance).
Such an approach obviously requires a team of assistants (who might be advanced undergraduates) to answer questions and support staff to address technical problems. But because such classes can teach upwards of 1,500 students at a time, they are no more expensive than existing in-person lecture classes and free up other faculty to direct high-impact practices such as mentored research.
2. Technology can increase students’ access to the active learning pedagogies associated with deep, durable learning. Students learn more, retain more, become more skilled and develop greater conceptual understanding when they actively process information and apply knowledge, concepts and skills to authentic problems. We now have a host of technology tools that make it easy for students to collaboratively annotate assigned readings, map and visualize data, mine texts and create infographics, podcasts, video stories and virtual exhibits and contribute to a class website or virtual encyclopedia.
3. Technology can enhance learning support. Repeat quizzing can help students (and their instructors) identify areas of confusion and underdeveloped skills. To address gaps in understanding or mastery, technology can prompt students to make use of embedded tutorials and facilitate synchronous and asynchronous online study groups and provide ready access to learning support centers.
4. Technology can scale high-impact educational practices. Many of the high-impact practices that enhance student engagement, improve retention, deepen learning and better prepare students for postgraduation success can be taken to scale with technology. For example:
- In an intensive writing course, students might critically evaluate text generated by ChatGPT or revise AI-generated text. Undergraduates might also receive instruction into effective peer writing feedback and then evaluate each other’s writing assignments.
- Technology can expand access to research opportunities that can be conducted virtually. These might include opportunities to collect and analyze data sets, conduct literature reviews, create annotated bibliographies, engage in data management and visualization, and design experiments or programs. Humanities research is also possible. Students might analyze online archival resources; transcribe, digitize and annotate primary sources; and create or contribute to virtual exhibitions or online encyclopedias.
- New technologies also provide a mechanism for providing students with career-aligned skills training. This might involve training in investigative and analytical techniques, programming languages, and industry-aligned digital platforms.
- Community service can be scaled electronically. Undergraduates might serve remotely as mentors or tutors for K-12 students, translate for refugees or other immigrants, staff an antiviolence or suicide-prevention hotline, communicate with isolated seniors, and record or translate public-domain books. Student teams can conduct research for community organizations and devise solutions to community problems.
- To promote global learning, technology can facilitate paired international partner classrooms and virtual pen pals.
5. The more popular campuses could significantly expand the number of students served. Even relatively modest increases in online course offerings, study abroad and other forms of online or off-campus learning could reduce pressure on existing classroom space and allow campuses to serve more students without any commensurate increases in facilities.
Since instruction represents only about 20 percent of campus costs, and since real faculty salaries have increased only modestly since 1999, productivity increases are possible without altering the student-faculty ratio or diminishing educational quality.
In a 2021 posting, the economics blogger Noah Smith quotes a famous 1987 quip by the Nobel Prize–winning MIT economist Robert Solow: “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.” That’s proven especially true in higher education.
Contrary to what many think, there is no inherent conflict between quality, rigor and learning, on one side, and cost, efficiency, productivity and scale, on the other. If we’ve haven’t broken higher education’s iron triangle of access and affordability, attainment, and quality, it’s for two primary reasons. First, because we’ve refused to think outside the box, and second, because we’ve allowed other priorities to take precedence over our core mission of teaching and learning.
Shifting to a more learning- and learner-centered educational model will inevitably disrupt the lives of the full-time tenured faculty members who are most comfortable with college as it currently is. The innovations that I call for will require many faculty members to redesign their existing courses and develop new kinds of learning experiences that are more active and experiential. They will also need to think of themselves in a new light, as learning architects, teach in unfamiliar ways and provide more substantive, constructive feedback. Skills building—especially of writing and quantitative skills—must become a higher faculty priority and not relegated largely to adjuncts and TAs.
In the vision that I favor, faculty will also have to assume greater responsibility for mentoring, not just of graduate students, but undergraduates as well.
Why rock the boat? Because higher education must do several things simultaneously: control costs. Improve learning outcomes. Reduce equity gaps. And bring more students to academic and career success.
Innovation is imperative, because higher education isn’t just about us, our convenience and our professional ambitions. It’s ultimately about our students. Without technology-enabled improvements, costs will continue to rise unsustainably, and the kind of education that is best will ultimately become unmaintainable and unaffordable.
Embracing new technologies, innovative pedagogies and novel kinds of learning experiences isn’t about cheapening a college education. Just the opposite. It’s a way to ensure that undergraduates receive the kind of education that we now reserved for the most privileged students, an education that is immersive, participatory, personalized, experiential and well mentored. We can do it if we try.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.