Faculty Productivity and Costs of a Higher Education

In my most recent blog on what higher education can learn from K-12, I pointed to the potential of the flipped classroom coupled with technology for increasing learning. Essentially, the flipped classroom allows the teacher to concentrate on more active engagement with learners, adapting to the needs of the learner, with students’ applying what is being learned during classroom time rather than listening to a lecture. What makes the flipped classroom a reality today for K-12 – and for colleges and universities – is the role that technology plays.

What I did not address in that last blog was the role that technology and the flipped classroom can play in raising faculty productivity and in lowering costs to students and families. The cost of a college or university degree remains a barrier to our achieving President Obama’s 2020 goal of having the U.S. become the country with the highest percentage of its students’ graduating from college. Besides its negative impact on demand for college degrees, rising costs of a college education are responsible for growing consumer debt. A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York outlined an increase of $64 billion in student loan balances over the last year, while household debt from all other sources (e.g., mortgages, auto loans, credit card balances) fell a combined total of $383 billion.

Making the U.S. competitive globally was the intent of the President’s 2020 college education goal. But its achievement seems unlikely without addressing the rising costs to a student and family for a college degree. A very large proportion of a college’s expenditures remains its instructional budget. For example, Colorado State University reported this year that 31% of expenditures were for instruction and academic support with the next largest category being research at 22%. Both expenditure areas are heavily driven by faculty expenses. Raising productivity of faculty, then, becomes one means to lower the price of a college degree.

Admittedly, substituting technology for some faculty expenditures will not be cheap or easy. Technology expenses include hardware and software as well as related support staff, training, etc. Despite the costs of a transition to greater use of technology in the college learning environment, the alternative is continued increases in tuition. The public seems unlikely to tolerate continued tuition increases for a college degree, and the federal government is already increasingly intolerant of growing student loan debt.

There is every reason to look more closely at this concept of the flipped classroom in higher education. Perhaps it can be the means to raising faculty productivity, integrating technology into the learning process, and holding down tuition costs.

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