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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 3, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 33
Thinking Out Loud

By William R. Brody

"Lawmakers have toyed with a bill that would cap tuition increases"

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 tuition increases.

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, almost immediately.

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 faculty.


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