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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Talk to Me Like I'm Stupid: Baumol's Cost Disease
February 3, 2013 - 11:07am

One of the Internet writers I most admire is Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic.

There are a number or reasons for my admiration. He is thoughtful, and often does his thinking on the page – showing his work, if you will – which I appreciate because I tend to do the same thing. He tackles a wide array of subjects; posts on civil war history, head trauma in football, hip-hop, and role-playing games may run one after another.

He also personally moderates his comments section, managing to wrangle anonymous Internet personalities into a frequently productive and enlightening discussion, which is perhaps his most amazing feat.

One of the features he occasionally employs is called “Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid,” where he crowdsources something he doesn’t know, or sufficiently understand in order to better inform himself.

In the process, he manages to better inform his audience as well.

I was hoping we could try something similar with a concept I see invoked frequently in these virtual pages.

I want you to talk to me like I’m stupid about Baumol’s Cost Disease as it pertains (or doesn’t) to higher education.

I have access to Wikipedia, so I understand the basics: that these two economists, Baumol and Bowen did a study on the performing arts showing that because salaries will rise without a corresponding increase in productivity (the number of musicians necessary to perform in a string quartet being the same regardless of century), then over time, string quartets grow progressively more expensive.

The phenomenon is frequently cited as a cause of increasing costs of both health care, and higher ed.

Obviously, unless and until MOOCs upend higher ed delivery for all (note to self, add MOOC as future topic for “talk to me like I’m stupid”), college instruction is going to be labor intensive.

And we all know that tuition is increasing much faster than the cost of inflation.

During the campaign, Vice President Joe Biden cited rising faculty salaries as the, or at least a cause of rising tuition.

But here’s the thing, and why I need help. Has the cost of faculty truly increased? Are we an example of Baumol’s Cost Disease?

My experience says no, but the world says yes. We can't get more productive, but are we getting more expensive?

This is my 12th year as a full-time non-tenure-track college instructor. My salary is almost the same as it was in the year 2001. The proportion of people like me, as well as the less fortunate on per-course adjunct pay as part of total faculty has only increased, which should be driving down salary costs.

In the six years I spent at Clemson, my salary was flat, except for the year everyone had a mandatory five-day furlough when it was obviously lower.

The AAUP reports that full-time faculty salaries across every category declined relative to inflation in the 2011-2012 academic year.

My experience and the information I can find tells me, if anything, faculty salaries, as a proportion of costs have held the line, but I don’t know, I just don’t know.

Any help is much appreciated. Links and citations doubly so.

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