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The Olive Garden Theory of Higher Education

Should colleges and universities find “innovative ways to skimp on quality”?

That provocation was made the other day by Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress. He believes the American system of higher education could learn lessons from certain middlebrow suburban restaurant chains.

The argument runs like this: The Olive Garden and its ilk might not deserve any culinary awards, but their menus are reasonably ambitious and their food is reliably okay. (Many of Yglesias’s commenters dispute that last point, but for purposes of this discussion let’s stipulate that The Olive Garden’s food is Not Bad. If you can’t buy that, then mentally substitute whatever other suburban chain you secretly like.) Through standardization and economies of scale, Yglesisas says, chains like The Olive Garden have found ways to sell respectable fascimiles of ethnic cuisines at low-to-moderate prices.

Yglesias believes the world would be better off if institutions of higher education (and health-care providers, but that’s a different conversation) had stronger incentives to provide value, in the Olive Garden sense: a consistently decent product at a price low enough that it’s accessible to a large swath of the public. College educations are so valuable, Yglesias argues, that broadening access to even a less-than-top-quality version would improve public welfare.

In one sense Yglesias seems clearly right: If colleges felt stronger pressure to reduce their prices, we’d see more institutions making drastic cuts in non-instructional costs. As it is, four-year not-for-profit colleges mostly still seem trapped in the familiar arms race of escalating spending on athletic fields, dormitories, and other nonacademic amenities. Only a handful of four-year colleges have embraced a “no-frills” model.

So if Yglesias’s call to “skimp on quality” means building fewer rock-climbing walls or carpeting fewer dorm rooms, then he’ll have no trouble finding people who agree with him.

But what about instructional costs themselves? How much scope is there in that realm for the kind of value-mongering that Yglesias wants to see?

Some people believe technology and national templates will make it possible to reduce the costs of introductory-level courses while maintaining the quality of learning. The National Center for Academic Transformation and other projects have demonstrated some of what can be done in that direction. (Is StraighterLine’s $99-a-month plan the equivalent of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl?)

But when we turn to upper-level courses, all of the potential trade-offs seem costly. Should class sizes increase? When student-faculty ratios grow, instructors often say that the quality of their teaching suffers. That’s especially true in writing-intensive courses, where instructors say they assign fewer pages of writing and spend less time grading each page.

Should faculty members teach more classes and spend less time on research? That notion is as popular as it’s ever been, but there are strong arguments that students suffer when faculty members are too detached from scholarship in their fields.

The colleges that are cooking up standardized national products in the corporate-restaurant-chain style are, of course, the for-profits. But those institutions don’t really fit Yglesias’s Olive Garden model because, whatever else you can say about them for good or ill, they’re not cheap.

(Photo by the Flickr user scaredy kat, used under a Creative Commons license.)

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