As the global economy continues its terrifying free fall into an abyss of undetermined depth, the demand for high-quality, government-subsidized services will naturally increase. But since government revenues are being dampened by the same world-wide economic meltdown, public institutions have less money to meet surging demand. To wit:
Admissions officers at the State University of New York college campus here are suddenly afraid of getting what they have always wished for: legions of top high-school seniors saying “yes” to their fat envelopes. Students are already tripled up in many dorm rooms after an unexpectedly large freshman class entered last fall. And despite looming budget cuts from the state, which more tuition-paying students could help offset, officials say they are determined not to diminish the quality of student life by expanding enrollment at their liberal-arts college beyond the current 6,000 undergraduates.The assumption that the potential degradation of student life is so great as to make any expansion of services impossible deserves more scrutiny than it gets here. I accept the basic premise that an over-capacity university provides less to students than an at-capacity university. But how much less? In what way, exactly? I lived in a triple room for a semester in college; it annoyed me mildly on some days, and then I walked out of the room and lived a student life no different than when one of my roomates moved out. Are larger class sizes the problem? I’d be more concerned about this if a robust body of research existed that examined the link between class size and student learning in higher education, but alas it does not. In other words, I don’t think it makes sense to just automatically assume that the marginal costs of adding, say, 500 slots to a campus, which will in some ways be disbursed among all 6,500 students plus the faculty and administration, necessarily outweigh the considerable benefits to those 500 students. They might, but they also might not. Times are tough, public universities need to adjust along with everyone else.
More broadly, I’d observe that an information-centered industry that’s tethered to a site-based model of service delivery with high fixed costs and an inability to easily or quickly scale is going to have a tough time managing over the long term in a world where information technology is changing the cost and scale equations so fundamentally.
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