This week William G. Bowen, ITHAKA trustee and Ithaka S+R senior advisor, delivered the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, hosted jointly by Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society and The Office of the President at Stanford University. These lectures are now available as an ITHAKA publication, The ‘Cost Disease’ in Higher Education: Is Technology the Answer?

Declining public support and steadily rising costs have caused tuition to rise faster than inflation (and family incomes) for many years. Concerns about higher education’s affordability have pervaded media and political discussion in recent years. Many have suggested that information technology might relieve financial pressure through lower cost forms of instruction.  In this two-part lecture, Bowen examines first the cost issues in higher education and then the potential for online learning to “bend the cost curve.”

Is there a crisis in the state of higher education? Bowen argues there are strong reasons to believe so, among which is his belief that the public is not willing to continue investing in higher education to the extent it has in the past. He focuses particularly on the “denominator” of the productivity equation and reviews some of the primary causes of rising costs in higher education. He suggests that technology can be used to ease the harshest effects of the “cost disease,” but only if the higher education community can seriously address certain organizational and cultural barriers, such as the compartmentalization of decision-making on campuses.

Bowen also explores the potential for interactive online learning technologies to lower costs. He suggests that Massively Open Online Course platforms may provide the best hope of addressing the collective need for “readily adaptable platforms or tool kits,” but highlights the need for more rigorous evidence about the efficacy of various approaches to teaching and learning.

This is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in today’s most pressing issues in higher education. We hope that it will inspire broad discussion and concerted, bold steps in the right direction.  Please let us know if you have thoughts or reactions.