Universities must slow the rising cost of higher education or risk losing the support of the American public, the president emeritus of Princeton University, William Bowen, argues in his new book.
To do that, college administrations should turn to online courses to combat the “cost disease,” a term explained several decades ago by Bowen, a labor economist.
The disease is simple: higher education prices are hard to bring down because labor prices rise while productivity remains the same. Bowen says that in academe, like a string quartet, there’s traditionally been little chance for colleges to reduce the number of laborers or the time it takes to finish the work.
The cure, Bowen writes, may be online education. He argues online education can reduce costs without undermining students’ education. While he goes out of his way to make sure nobody thinks online education will be a silver bullet, Bowen's argument is likely to receive attention because of his time at Princeton and at ITHAKA  studying new technologies .
The book, Higher Education in the Digital Age  (forthcoming from Princeton University Press), frames the current and coming debates instead of answering questions about the future of online learning. About a third  of students now take at least one class online.
Bowen argues these online classes – including massive open online courses and their recorded lectures – can increase productivity by leaving faculty time to do higher-value tasks, including meeting with students, rather than repeating stale material again and again. If this can lower costs, then efforts to save money must be “highly visible,” Bowen writes. "Sadly," he writes, some educators lack the courage to try to save money.
“Absent strong leadership, however, there is a high probability that any productivity gains from online education will be used to gild the education/research lily,” he writes in the book.
He writes this amid his fear that the American public will sour on higher education if educators do not show they are trying to hold down prices. "We must recognize that if higher education does not begin to slow the rate of increase in college costs, our nation's higher education system will lose the public support on which it so heavily depends," he writes.
Bowen peppers his optimism about technology's possibilities with caution and even a bit of wry mischief-making.
At a recent conference  at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bowen looked around a room of mostly Ivy League faculty members gathered at an invitation-only conference about the future of the residential college in the digital age. There were, it was clear, few leaders from public universities or community colleges, though they arguably struggle the most with costs and have students who could most benefit from cheaper education.
“If you want to be truly useful in the world, think beyond rarefied air," Bowen told his elite colleagues.
Bowen worries online learning will leave students behind or that the solutions dreamed up at elite institutions will not work in a country with a higher education system that bears no great resemblance to the classes in Cambridge. "One of the issues is really an equity issue, at the end of the day, will the gap between haves and have-nots be narrowed or widened by this development,” he said. “It could go either way.”
He said in a telephone interview that it is difficult for people whose lives are so tied up with one kind of institution to look across the spectrum of higher education.
Bowen also takes the hype about MOOCs with a grain of salt.
“Missionaries don’t particularly want their methods tested – they are missionaries after all,” he warned.
The missionaries include MOOC providers, the media, administrators and business-minded higher education policymakers, Bowen writes.
“There is a real danger that the media frenzy associated with MOOCs will lead some colleges and universities (and especially business-oriented members of their boards ) to embrace too tightly the MOOC approach before it is adequately tested and found to be both sustainable and capable of delivering good learning outcomes for all kinds of students,” he writes.
Bowen also predicts coming debates about faculty governance and intellectual property  as faculty members team up to teach courses or use an online course from another institution to aid them in their own classrooms.
“It’s less possible to talk about my course – quote, unquote; you have to talk about ‘our course,’ ” he said.
Bowen also worries the results of a new era of data analytics -- which can provide detailed information on how students learn -- will be locked away or exploited by private companies.
“The example of Google illustrates dramatically the value that can be derived from exploiting a proprietary database for purposes such as selling targeted advertising,” Bowen writes. “Massive amounts of data on how students learn can further the core mission of not-for-profit higher education and lead, in time, to the creation of better adaptive-learning systems .”
Bowen said information on student learning should be put into a public repository and be used for the public good.