Today we began a process going on in higher ed across America--creating an estimated budget for the 2010-2011 academic year. This is hard work, relying as it does on a mixture of prognostication, data, hope, and kabuki theatre.
At this point in the process, there are really three big questions on any campus: How many students do we think we can recruit? How much will tuition change? And how much financial aid will be give out? We've added a fourth this year: How can we improve quality and reduce cost to students.
I've blogged about this question before, but a new dimension of the problem came into view today. How can we innovate to reduce cost and improve quality in a very tight budget situation?
In some ways this seems like the wrong question. After all, we have learned the cliche that "Necessity is the mother of invention," and therefore believe that tough times lead to innovation. But I'm not sure that this is the case at all. It might in fact be the case that prosperity (or a return to prosperity) leads to innovation. (The New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik makes this point here).
Perhaps the best evidence of this is the way that leading corporations--Google, 3M, Intel--all provide generous sabbaticals or free time to their employees. At Google one day of 5 is given over to whatever project someone wants to work on, for example.
This excess capacity makes it possible for Google's engineers to innovate while still carrying out the work of the company. But in higher ed we don't have (or at least we believe we don't have) that sort of excess capacity. So innovation comes either by getting rid of a program ("drowning the kittens" in the memorable phrase of one of our board members) or more frequently by creating a new one entirely.
Neither of these models, though, reduces cost and improves quality. Dropping a program cuts the overall budget a bit, but hardly enough to make a dent in the tuition bill a student pays. And adding a new program adds ongoing costs that have to be met somehow--usually by adding new tuition-paying students.
So I left the meeting today thinking two things. First, if we want innovation to happen, we need some excess capacity somewhere. And if Google et.al are right, that excess capacity needs to be recognized formally by the institution, and it needs to be widespread. It could be some sort of sabbatical system, or even the sort of professional development days built formally into K-12 (though I'm dubious about their impact there.)
Second, once innovations are tested, they need to be broadly spread throughout the organization. That is, creating and staffing a new program probably won't change either the learning or the cost for most students. However, funding collaborative work between existing programs holds some promise. Think, for example, how learning might improve and costs be cut if academic programs required experiential learning (for credit) that was provided by co-curricular units on campus. Faculty would teach fewer classes, students would get more hands-on learning, the investments into the co-curriculum would count in the credit system, and the overall expense of a degree could go down.