Making a car in the age of computers and automation requires fewer than a fifth of the workers that the same task took half a century ago, reducing the relative cost and making cars available to almost everybody.
Making a college education, on the other hand, takes about the same number of people as it did in the 1960s. Or more in many cases. That keeps it expensive and out of reach for most Americans.
When will the higher education system get with the productivity program that has revolutionized much of the rest of the economy?
Professors and university administrators like to think their product is more important than a car.
They're right. But that's why it's so critical to get the economics of higher education right. If universities can't deliver the kind of quality improvements and cost reductions embraced by other industries, investing in tomorrow's workers and citizens becomes a bigger and bigger problem.
After decades of passing price increases almost unchallenged onto their customers, universities are gingerly trying out the kind of cost-accounting and efficiency measures that are routine among businesses.
The University of Maryland Eastern Shore shows what's possible, at least with some courses. Using larger classes, a dedicated computer lab and a teaching assistant available all day, five days a week, the university cut costs to teach a freshman chemistry course by 70 percent and increased the student pass rate from 55 percent to 70 percent.
The savings were even bigger if you count money spent to retake the class by the extra students who flunked under the old course design.
Cutting weekly lectures from three to two, reducing the number of professors from six to two, and doubling the class size to as much as 110, as UMES did with Principles of Chemistry I, might seem a poor tactic to increase learning.
But research shows that students absorb about the same amount of material whether there are 40 of them in a lecture or 100. Once attendance gets too big for a professor to interact with students individually, the downside of adding each extra student decreases.
To compensate for fewer and bigger lectures, UMES installed a chemistry-only computer lab with strict rules and a learning assistant with at least a bachelor's in chemistry there 40 hours a week. No Facebook. No mobile phones! Unlike many general-purpose college computer labs, the focus is on academics, not socializing.
Students must work in the lab at least an hour a week, but many are there longer. Software makes assignments and guides students through, say, identifying the limiting reagent in a chemical reaction. Upperclassmen tutor along with the learning assistant. Computers grade homework and tests.
But computers aren't the most important change, says Jennifer Hearne, an assistant professor of biochemistry who put the program together with advice from the National Center for Academic Transformation, a think tank in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., dedicated to using technology to make teaching more productive.
"They need an environment in which they can learn, in which they can ask questions freely and receive on-demand assistance," Hearne said. "That's really one of the aspects that is most helpful to the student — being able to learn when they're ready to learn" — and not having to wait for a professor's office hours.
Pilot programs at other Maryland state campuses, also designed with the help of the National Center, cut costs and maintained or increased pass rates, according to university system officials. The focus is on first-year lecture courses in science and math that often prove a barrier to student progress.
At Coppin State University, they cut the number of elementary algebra sections and adjunct professors in half by doubling the size of the class to 48. At Frostburg State University they cut the cost-per-student to teach psychology by 72 percent. At Towson University they reduced costs to teach developmental math by 17 percent while maintaining previous pass rates.
"Cost containment is a way of life in our society today," William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said in an interview. "It's hard to imagine that changing. This is a way of practicing cost containment but also improving learning and retention, especially in those disciplines in which we need to have more students being successful."
Kirwan paints Maryland as a leader in course redesign, and he may be right. But the ground covered so far is limited when measured against the potential.
New reform will redesign a dozen or so courses a year for the next three years, says Donald Z. Spicer, associate vice chancellor of the system. In what I assume is an attempt to avoid faculty mutiny, the administration has recommended that cost savings be kept within academic departments instead of being passed along to students.
After a multiyear tuition freeze that recently ended, Kirwan says, the system doesn't need to apologize for its price tag. Perhaps, but Gov. Martin O'Malley's tuition freeze was achieved largely by moving state money around, not through efficiency. Making Maryland's most important product sustainably more affordable will require more productivity improvements using the technological tools today's students want — and then passing the savings on to customers.
Name an inflation nightmare in recent decades — energy, housing, even health care — and college-tuition inflation has been worse.
If the automobile industry had adopted the efficiency and pricing practices reflected in the tuition and fees of U.S. universities, the Ford Mustang that cost $9,000 in 1980 would cost $90,000 today. True, universities are service providers, not manufacturers. Perhaps potential efficiencies are less than what Toyota has discovered. But look at what banks and retailers have accomplished.
Maryland regents want to add 45,000 students to the university system by 2020. President Barack Obama has challenged the United States to retake the global lead in university graduation rates by the same year. Uncomfortable as it may be for the colleges, the only way to achieve these goals is to improve the quality of the product while cutting the cost.