WILLIAM BOWEN, a former president of Princeton, calls it “Harvard envy”. Other American universities try to emulate the Ivy League, which raises costs. They erect sumptuous buildings, lure star professors with fat salaries and hire armies of administrators. In 1976 there were only half as many college bureaucrats as academic staff; now the ratio is almost one to one. No wonder average annual fees at private universities have soared to $31,000 in 2014, a rise of around 200% since the early 1970s (see chart). Each new graduate in America is now about $40,000 in debt. People who take costly arts degrees may end up poorer than if they had never been to college (see article).
Digital technology can make college cheaper without making it worse, says Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University (ASU) in Phoenix and co-author of “Designing the New American University”. This idea is not new. For a few years now, massive open online courses (“MOOCs”) have enabled universities to beam lectures to wide audiences for a tiny marginal cost. The problem has always been that taking a MOOC is not the same as attending college in person. MOOCs are cheap, but students cannot bump into each other in the library and swap ideas, chit-chat or body fluids.
ASU seeks to mix online and face-to-face instruction in a way that makes both more effective. For example, one reason why college costs so much is that many students fail to graduate on time. Only three-fifths finish a four-year degree within six years. This may be because they are ill-prepared when they arrive: shaky numeracy leads many to drop out of courses that require maths. ASU uses technology to diagnose and address such shortcomings. All students are tested on arrival and given remedial help if they need it.
[ Full article available at The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21646219-college-america-ruinously-expensive-some-digital-cures-are-emerging-log ]