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University president emeritus William Bowen GS ’58 published a book this month arguing that the growing costs of higher education, caused by inefficient academic structures and competition from wealthier universities, could be addressed by cost-cutting measures like a greater reliance on online courses. In “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” he writes that rising expenses have caused a greater stratification among educational institutions, with wealthier institutions like Princeton at the top of the heap. But now the University may be helping to close the gap described by Bowen by seeking to develop online courses that other institutions may offer for credit. 

In his book, Bowen argues that the overarching problem of the labor-intensive education sector is that educational institutions cannot simply increase productivity by replacing human labor with capital — a phenomenon he terms the “cost disease.” Yet because the cost of employing competent professors, for example, remains high, spending at these institutions rises.

In addition to these inefficiencies in the academic structures, such as universities’ inability to shift faculty between fields and the maintenance of outdated programs, cost pressures can also come from the competition between colleges, which drives up spending in the name of educational excellence. Wealthier institutions, Bowen writes, can afford these costs, but their actions put pressure on other institutions lacking adequate revenue to also increase spending.

Bowen addresses the “cost disease” by proposing that universities suffering from funding problems begin to offer online courses produced by other institutions, a move that, he argues, has the potential to reduce costs while preserving the quality of education.

These online courses would be produced by wealthier educational institutions, such as Princeton. The University currently partners with the online course producer Coursera to offer seven educational courses that are free and open to the public.

University Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said that the University’s partnership with Coursera resulted from an effort to increase the interaction between faculty and students.

“A lot of what we do with the online area is basically designed to increase that level of engagement,” Eisgruber said. “Our faculty who are involved with Coursera, for example, are delivering their lectures, but they’re delivering their lectures online with the goal of being more accessible to students and having more engagement in the actual classroom sessions that take place.”

In the fall of 2012, history professor Jeremy Adelman taught HIS 201: A History of the World Since 1300 through Coursera. In addition to his students at the University, international students watched his courses and participated in “global precepts” through a Google+ hangout.

Adelman said the use of the web allowed his students to better understand class material.

“What I wanted to do was bring the world into the course so that students would learn about the globe globally, opening up channels of communication with other students in the world,” he said.

But Bowen said in an interview that online learning requires careful consideration. He explained that the current online courses are designed for individuals, not large institutions like a university. Before adopting a policy of online education, information on the learning effectiveness of online courses and on its cost implications must be studied, he said.

For the University, implementing an online course program has increased spending by approximately $250,000 annually, according to Eisgruber. He said that, at the University, he does not foresee online courses reducing spending because online courses will not serve to replace the classroom but, rather, to supplement it.

In 2000, Bowen delivered the Romanes Lecture in Oxford in which he argued against the use of online education to reduce costs and increase productivity. At that time, studies did not show an efficient application of technology to education, but Bowen said that he now supports a selective use of online education due to dramatic changes in the technology and education environments.

“One is tremendous improvements and advances in the technology,” he said, giving examples such as speed of communication, Internet access and social web interactions.  

“The second thing that has changed is that there are far greater cost pressures on the educational system than there were when I had the Romanes Lecture,” he said. “The state university system is just under massive attack. Funding is being reduced while more is expected of these systems. They’ve just got to find more ways of doing more with less. And the pressure to do that is much greater now than it was 10 years ago.”

Dean of Faculty David Dobkin also said he believes that online education is rapidly changing, and the University’s current partnership with Coursera is experimental and not necessarily permanent.  

“This is an experiment that Princeton seems to do every 10 years or so, and it fails,” Dobkin said. “I think it’s different this time, but I don’t think that we’ll think about online courses in 10 years the way we think about Coursera now.”

Dobkin said that the number of online course offerings will most likely remain the same next year and that the University’s use of online education depends on the results of this experiment.  

Should the cost of higher education continue to rise or be inadequately addressed, the United States will lose its position relative to other countries in educating its citizens in a highly competitive world economy, Bowen said.

He explained that the second risk would be reducing the country’s ability to provide real social mobility. According to Bowen, the gap between the haves and have-nots would continue to widen and compromise the chance for the genuine equality of opportunity that — in the United States — relies on higher education.

Bowen served as University president from 1972 to 1988, after which he became president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that provides grants for fields such as higher education and energy conservation. During this time, Bowen helped found JSTOR and Ithaka, partner organizations that use information technology to enhance research and education. He is currently on the board of trustees for both Ithaka and JSTOR.

Bowen’s book was published by Princeton University Press on April 7 and is being sold for $26.95. 

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