Producers and Consumers

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Products are made. Products are consumed. And how we think about a product depends on which of those worlds we stand in.

What does it take to buy a college course? Well, it takes three things.

  1. It takes the intellectual history to be allowed into that course (whether through qualifying for college admission or having taken the pre-requisites for upper-division courses).
  2. It takes a certain amount of cash, ranging from $138 for a three-credit course in a California community college up to about $5,500 for a three-credit course for a full-tuition student taking 15 credits a semester at Columbia.
  3. It takes (according to accreditors) an average of 135 hours of time invested, 45 hours in the classroom and 90 hours of independent work.

What does it take to produce a college course? That’s a much more complicated equation, including compliance with a vast number of regulations, designing the curriculum within which the course exists, operating a finance department to help students manage payments, operating the campus (whether ivy-covered brick buildings in New England or a server farm in Finland), staying abreast of developments in the relevant discipline, and running a police force and a recreation program. The cost of actually paying a trained human to guide the class is only a small component of the overall expense of course provision.

The cost of paying that human is also one of the only parts that a college can control. And they do that as well as they can, in the same ways that any manufacturer does. They reduce wages, through piecework and through hiring only the qualifications they really need. They standardize processes, with a handful of permanent faculty setting the curriculum that contractors provide. They increase the expected output rate, through increasing class sizes. And they have unspoken but real expectations for managerial overwork, through salaried positions that are unaccountable for overtime.

In 1934, the Industrial Workers of the World published a document called “Unemployment and the Machine,” which includes the following statement:

In 1909 it required 303 man-hours to make one car; in 1929 the time had been reduced to 92 man-hours and in 1932 and 1933 the time is still less.

According to Motor Trend magazine, that’s now down to about 30 on average. CAD/CAM design, robotic assembly, the purchase of preassembled components, just-in-time parts provision, all of that adds up to fewer hands on the car while it runs down the assembly line at Ford’s Dearborn Truck or Honda Manufacturing of Alabama. The majority of the work is done off-site, by engineers and process managers and components vendors.

So too in college provision. The average public four-year college had the same number of employees per thousand students in 2012 that it did in 2000 (about 185). But the makeup of that staff has shifted away from full-time faculty and non-professional staff (technical, clerical) toward part-time faculty and professional staff (student services, academic support, HR and IT). The factory floor is only the visible (and shrinking) element of creating the product.

The University of Michigan and Ford Motor Company aren’t that far apart, in geography or in labor economics.