Monday, August 26, 2013

Looking for (cost savings and quality improvement) in all the wrong places

The word "discrimination" raises a red flag with many people.  Economists use it in the context of pricing and argue that it is a good thing because it promotes efficiency - senior citizen and student discounts an example that conveys the meaning when we discuss this in intermediate microeconomics.  But we see price discrimination in higher education in a way that favors the kids from well-off families.  If we talked about this more and made it more overt, perhaps we'd do something about it and come up with more sensible recommendations.

Here I want to look at this for Big Public U and focus on three things in concert:

(1) The role of AP courses in de facto setting higher ed tuition expenditure,
(2) The complementary role played by a below-cost in-state tuition, and
(3) The massive introductory courses and their role in controlling overall costs.

The argument is simple enough.  The kids who come in with a lot of AP credit already have shorter time to degree (so pay less tuition overall), bypass the high enrollment courses in the main (so get a higher quality instruction on a per course basis), and among those who are within state they are also getting a rather substantial subsidy, which they don't need at all, in the sense that they'd attend college anyway and pay the full tuition if they went elsewhere to a private institution.  

Politically it might be suicide to raise the in-state tuition rate, at least if it were expressed the way I have above, so perhaps a more palpable solution would be to go to "pricing for the degree" rather than pricing per semester.  A college degree, like a house, is an asset.  Price that.  Then have tuition be a kind of mortgage.  And those can vary by term.  Students who's profile predicts them to graduate in 3 years would pay a higher rate because of the shorter term.  Students who's  profile predicts it will take 6 years get a lower rate.  This sort of change would "lower the cost" of a degree for students of modest income, as it is discussed in the popular press.  Kids from well off families would pay more.

A move to this sort of pricing scheme might slow down what I take to be a pernicious trend in high school education - students of means taking a large number of AP classes instead of taking classes for enrichment but that don't carry college credit.  I believe in a "smell the roses" approach to education, which we seemed to have moved away from.  But the pricing change alone probably won't achieve much on this score unless something else is done to improve quality in the large introductory courses.  So let's turn to that.

In 1996 when I was the Associate Director of the SCALE project, I along with a doctoral student in Economics did a study of undergraduate retention rates at the U of I.  In the process of doing this study I got enrollment information on all courses on campus.  We looked at 5 years worth of data, with the last semester spring 1996.  The patterns were fairly stable over that time and are well summarized by the table below.

The course-size distribution was highly skewed.  Modal course size was reasonable and perhaps not too different from course size at private universities.  But there were some mega courses and they were concentrated at the introductory level.  This is reflected even more in the standard deviation number than it is in the mean.

Note that this is course size, not section size.  In a few high enrollment courses at the time,  the notable ones being introductory rhetoric and introductory foreign language classes, there would be many modestly sized sections taught by graduate students.  But most of the mega courses were taught either in lecture-discussion mode or as straight lecture.  The ratio of instructional staff to students in those courses is much lower than it is in the upper level courses.

Things have changed since then, so the picture painted above is not precise.  For one, our course numbering scheme has changed.  More importantly, tuition has risen rather dramatically.  Students who take General Education courses in the summer may then do so at a community college or an online alternative rather than at the U of I as a form of tuition avoidance.   There are more transfer students now with the advent of the two + two model to hold down tuition costs.  (Students attend community college till they obtain an associates degree and then transfer.)  There are probably other relevant changes as well.  Nevertheless, I surmise that the picture painted by that table is still largely intact.

One other point to be made here is that most faculty are not involved at all in the mega courses.  Their undergraduate teaching is concentrated in the upper level classes.  There is a tendency to consider one's own teaching but not to consider the full scope of offerings.  So, faculty governance may never get to addressing the issues properly. There is also the matter that enrollments in the mega courses are driven by General Education requirements that must be satisfied for graduation.  Offering departments see inelastic demand for these courses, so have very little incentive to increase their staffing.

But any theory of human capital development will argue that early intervention is critical.  What we seem to have instead is a screening approach, where the large introductory courses weed out students who can't hack it.  Disproportionately, those are students who don't have a lot AP credit coming it.  A more nurturing approach would move resource from the upper level courses to the introductory ones.

Hardly anybody seems to be talking about that.  It is the conversation we should be having. 

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