With the recession continuing and many states still struggling to balance budgets, the expenses of state universities are increasingly subject to scrutiny. Why do these schools spend so much, legislators wonder. These institutions should operate efficiently, more like businesses.

This discussion is particularly relevant in Maryland, where many colleges are now increasingly class size and cutting services in an effort to increase efficiency. As one writer put it:

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.

One reader, a professor at Maryland’s to Towson University, objects. As Richard Vatz writes in the Baltimore Sun

I cannot speak authoritatively to whether this higher education solution is ever possible in chemistry courses and some other natural sciences, but in the humanities and social sciences it is always educationally destructive. Degrading the quality of professors and instructor-class interaction (such as in on-line courses) will always sacrifice higher education learning and sacrifice it significantly. Moreover, using “pass rate” as evidence of course success is an invalid measure of course integrity, as such rates can easily be manipulated. Subtler indices of classroom success, such as how much material students “absorb,” are impossible to measure and inadequate as well.

Part of the problem here is that while waste is bad, and efficiency is good, all efficiency is not created equal. Cutting costs might be cheaper, and it might be adequate education, but it might still be less effective education.

For-profit college have demonstrated quite effectively that economic efficiency might often be good for the bottom line, but it doesn’t necessarily mean good teaching and learning. Or, at any rate, cutting more and more costs can only improve education to a point. After a little while, and depending on what the course is, just cramming more people into a room creates something very bad. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer