Monday, June 13, 2016

Curriculum and Cost

Michael Bugeja’s piece this week in IHE identifying curricular bloat as a driver of cost was frustrating.  It had a kernel of truth, but missed the main point.

Pointing to curricular bloat as a driver of increased cost, It argues that there’s a mismatch between the incentives of individual faculty or departments and the needs of a college as a whole.  While the college as a whole would often benefit from relatively streamlined offerings, every department wants to grow its enrollments and its portfolio.  Curricular innovation is a way for individual faculty to make a mark, and any new class stands a non-trivial chance of drawing new students.  So courses proliferate, stretching resources ever thinner.

So far, so good.  But the argument reads like saying that we could save energy by abolishing car radios.  That may help a little, on the margins, but the real issue is cars themselves.  

The piece implies correctly that setting up curricular options on top of options can force small sections to run, which generates cost.  That’s true, although easy to overstate; in any given semester, the number of sections we’re “forced” to run for reasons is small and shrinking.  They exist, but their impact is marginal.  Over the years, much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  Small sections made necessary by curricular thin-slicing are not the main story, and they’re certainly not driving increases.

The main stories around curriculum and cost are different.

First is the loss of students through convoluted curricula.  This is the insight behind the “guided pathways” movement.  Recognize student behavior -- drawing insight from behavioral economics, among other places -- and build curricula that tend to put students on clear tracks.  That means reducing the number of places they can get lost.  

Second, most curricula denominate learning in units of time.  When you do that, you can never increase the credits-per-hour, by definition.  It’s called Baumol’s cost disease.  It holds in very labor-intensive sectors, such as education, health care, corrections, and live theatre.  (Baumol famously uses the example of a string quartet.  It takes just as many musicians just as long to play a string quartet as it did 200 years ago.  In economic terms, that’s a productivity increase of zero over two centuries.  When the rest of the economy increases productivity every year, and a few sectors don’t, those sectors will get squeezed.)

To the extent that Bugeja has an argument, it’s around remediation.  The CCRC and others have shown pretty compellingly that when it comes to remediation, we should err in the direction of less, not more.  But he’s clearly not writing in a community college context.  For example, he seems to object to budgets that allocate based on total enrollments, rather than declared majors.  In my world, that’s absurd.  We have very few English majors, but every student at the college has to take at least one (and usually more) English course.  Staffing according to declared majors would lead to catastrophic bottlenecks.

Bugeja’s assumed context becomes even clearer when he recommends “universal course titles...allowing different subjects each semester without expanding curricula.”  These are often presented as “Topics in…”  They’re lovely, educationally, but a nightmare to transfer.  Receiving institutions often cast a skeptical eye upon them, not knowing which box to check on a list.  They wind up getting relegated to “free elective” status, which is where credits go to die.  What looks like a solution to curricular bloat from the perspective of a receiving school is actually an invitation to excess credits.  No, thanks.

Reading it several times, Bugeja is really arguing more against Responsibility-Centered Management (or “every tub on its own bottom”) than against curricular growth.  In a large university in which each “school” has its own budget, there’s a very real incentive for each unit to cannibalize the others.  But that’s not really a curriculum problem.  It’s a structure problem.  RCM doesn’t work.  If you reward cannibalism, than cannibalism you shall have.  The solution isn’t to ask the cannibals to look to their enlightened self-interest.  It’s to stop rewarding cannibalism.

Yes, there are economic gains to be made by including curriculum in the discussion.  But first we have to get the terms of the discussion right.