Archibald, R. and Feldman, D.  (2001) Why Does College Cost So Much? New York: Oxford University Press

Fish, S. (2010) There is no college cost crisis New York Times, November 15

The book by two economists in fact argues that the cost of colleges and universities in the USA, while rising, has not risen as much as disposable income, so it is still ‘affordable.’

Interestingly, one reason they argue for rising costs is the cost of technology. In an excellent review of the book, Stanley Fish summarises the argument as follows:

The causes of the increase in college costs (an increase that has not, they contend, put college “out of reach”) are external; colleges are responding, as they must, to changes they cannot ignore and still provide a quality product. Chief among these is the change in the sophistication and cost of the technology that has at once transformed the setting of higher education and become one of the areas of knowledge higher education must impart to students. Students expect to be instructed in the new technologies, and that instruction requires their installation, and then as new refinements emerge, their re-installation. “[A] modern university must provide students with an up-to-date education that familiarizes students with the techniques and associated machinery that are used in the workplace the students must enter.”……

In industries like education, medicine and the law, where advances in technology lead to a demand for ever-more-highly-educated personnel and mechanization is frowned upon because of a concern with quality, technological advances will raise costs rather than reduce them. If you understand the “increase in the intensity of equipment use and in the skill requirements for those who work” in the academy, you will also understand why “these changes have increased higher education costs more than the cost of most [but not all] goods and services.”

According to Fish, the book is mainly a response to the right wing political ‘dysfunctionality narrative’ in the USA, that claims that the reason for the increasing costs of higher education lies in the incompetence and mismanagement of mainly public institutions. Archibald and Feldman however take what they call a more ‘aerial’ view, where they look at higher education as a specific type of industry, and they argue that costs are rising in response mainly to external factors, such as the need to provide a technology-rich teaching environment to respond to market demands.

Although I do believe the right-wing ‘dysfunctionality narrative’ is overblown, I don’t quite agree that the increasing use of technology will inevitably lead to higher costs. What the Archibald and Feldman argument fails to address (I believe – I’m only going on the Fish review) is the need to change processes – such as teaching – in order to maximise the investment in technology. Archibald and Feldman’s argument assumes that technology costs are merely added to existing functions or processes, rather than in some cases to replace them (e.g. reducing classroom time and replacing it with online learning time). I am not arguing that technology will lead to large savings without a loss of quality, but it should and could be managed in such a way that quality is maintained or improved without additional cost per student graduated. But that does place the responsibility back on internal factors, such as the management of technology in universities and colleges.

However, this does look like an interesting book, and I am ordering it.


  1. Mr. Bates,

    The ‘dysfunctionality narrative’ is NOT the preserve of the right, so our book is not a response to anything particularly ‘right wing.’ Many on the left also adhere to variants of the dysfunction narrative. The right wing often sees the problem as beginning with government (too much subsidy, for instance). The left often thinks the government doesn’t do enough, and that higher education is a human right of almost ineffable value. To the left, thinking about higher education as a mere ‘industry’ is appalling.

    Professor Archibald and I are equal opportunity offenders of the left and the right. For that reason, we are likely to get run over twice. That is the proverbial fate of people who are in the middle of the road.

    Thank you for your interest in our work.

    David Feldman

  2. As the business world well knows, properly managed technological initiatives can help to reduce costs while improving functionality. If more education institutions leveraged well planned technological initiatives on the administrative end (through technologies such as virtualization and Software-as-a-Service, for example), the resulting savings could then be reallocated to the procurement of educational technologies without having to increase the overall technology budget. Additionally, it is importnat that those ed tech initiatives be well managed, and that we avoid “tech for tech’s sake” projects, such as placing high end Smartboards in every single classroom (which is probably overkill) while also not providing adequate training and support. There also seems to be a tendency with some of these technologies, for districts to jump on the “brand name” bandwagon, rather than considering lower cost alternatives that are fundamentally equivalent. The bottom line is that through properly managed tech initiatives, services and capabilities can be improved while costs are controlled.


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