"Lawmakers have toyed with a bill that would cap tuition
For most of the past 25 years, the "sticker price" of
a college education has been rising steadily, outpacing the
consumer price index. We in higher education have developed
a plausible explanation of why this is so, and we also
point out that the net cost to the student (that is,
tuition minus financial aid) has remained at or below the
general level of inflation.
But all of this has fallen on deaf ears in Washington,
where lawmakers have toyed with a bill that would cap
In anticipation of federally mandated controls, I've
thought about how a Johns Hopkins education could be made
more cost-effective by borrowing ideas from other sectors
of the economy that have dramatically lowered their costs.
Productivity improvement is the name of the game, so herein
follows some proven business practices that are examples of
the changes we might see.
From Ikea, I learned (the hard
way) that one powerful secret to lowering cost is "buyer
build it," more commonly referred to as "some assembly
required." This innovation could certainly be applied to
our Hopkins "hand-tooled" education to effect tremendous
savings. In this case, our students would provide their own
learning tools: We would simply hand out the textbooks and
the course syllabus and expect the students to show up at
the final exam with the finished product self-assembled.
Hail the do-it-yourself bachelor's degree with an easy (for
us) 30 percent reduction in tuition costs.
IBM has demonstrated that we can
outsource much of our intellectual capital from lower-cost
countries with an abundance of bright, unemployed Ph.D.'s
— places like India and China. Hopkins could hire
nontenured faculty members in Deli or Beijing and let them
conduct research studies at a fraction of the cost of our
Baltimore-based faculty. Further, we could have them
lecture via video teleconferencing or on DVDs. Another 10
or 15 percent comes off the sticker price.
Black and Decker has set up
manufacturing plants in Mexico to lower its cost of
production. With real-estate prices in Baltimore and
Washington rising relentlessly, we could relocate our
remaining tenured faculty to lower-cost locations outside
the United States — and cut salaries by at least a
quarter while enabling the faculty to enjoy an equivalent
lifestyle. Students would be overjoyed to schedule meetings
with their advisers in Cozumel or to take organic chemistry
in Mazatlan, especially in the winter months.
From Wal-Mart, I know that we can
import goods from developing countries much less
expensively than U.S.-made items. In addition to Hopkins
sweatshirts from Indonesia, why not purchase textbooks and
scientific journals from Malaysia or Argentina, where they
don't pay copyright fees? Another 5 percent reduction,
Verizon has advised me that we
could eliminate teaching assistants entirely through the
use of automated voice-response telephone systems. Our
students would need only to dial 800-JHU-HELP when they are
having problems, say with their calculus course. For
example: "Dial 1 for assistance with partial differential
equations, dial 2 if you need help with l'Hospital's rules
and dial 9 to hear this menu as an infinite series." Wow,
all in clearly understandable English, and another 5
percent reduction in costs!
Finally, we would adopt strict
financial measures for each major and make decisions
accordingly. Some, like history and psychology, look like
they could provide 10-15 percent per annum earnings growth.
Others, such as biomedical engineering, are so
resource-intensive that they operate at a loss; Wall Street
(and now, apparently, Congress) would no doubt applaud our
financial performance if we got rid of those
resource-intensive, cash-consuming majors.
The New Hopkins would operate so efficiently that we
would no longer need the large investment in bricks and
mortar already assembled in Baltimore for our undergraduate
programs. No problem. Why not reconfigure the Homewood
campus into a college for seniors over 65 who want to
experience the college life they perhaps never had? The
golden years group — having maxed their earnings
potential — would not be as concerned about tuition
costs. And to build business synergies, we could upscale
dorm rooms to include full nursing care, a definite growth
industry in the coming decades.
It's true. Higher education could learn many important
lessons from the corporate world.
William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins
University. A version of this essay first appeared in
Change, a newsletter published for the medical