When I showed up in 1961, there had been a tuition riot the year before. Tuition had gone from $1,200 to $1,400, a hearty 16% rise. My house bill at ΦΔΘ was $110/month. So the total, rounding up, was, $2,500. It was a lot of money, especially for my family, which was too well off for me to qualify for financial aid, but not well enough off to handle the $2,500 without considerable sacrifice.
Now tuition, room, board, and fees have just topped $50,000, but of course you have to adjust for inflation, perhaps by using the handy inflation calculator provided by the US Department of Labor. With that adjustment, tuition, room, and board ought to be about $18,000.
So relative to the rest of the economy, MIT’s educational productivity has lagged behind by a factor of about 2.75 over the past 50 years.
I’m not really surprised. The last great technical contribution to education was the development of fast, cheap copying machines and before that the invention of the printing press in 1440. I don’t count computers, because I think that, for the most part, they just make us stupid. Education remains labor intensive out of proportion to just about everything else.
Also, there is the matter of growing administration. A while ago, the sometimes acerbic Philip Greenspun ’82, SM ’93, PhD ’99 poked around and found that in 1969, MIT employed 962 faculty and 622 administrators. During the past twenty years, the faculty has been stable at about 1,000, an insignificant 4% more than the 1969 number, while administration has grown from about 1,000 to about 1,800, almost three times the 1969 number and a presumably larger multiple of the 1961 number. Interestingly, in 1961, administrators had no productivity-multiplying computers; the only computer was the IBM 7090, in building 26, with impressive tape drives, shown off behind large glass windows along the hallway.
Like most MIT people, I like to look at the numbers. To graduate in four years, you have to take eight subjects a year. My fall subject has two lectures, two recitations, and one tutorial in each of fourteen weeks. Subtracting out holidays, quizzes, and short weeks, that leaves about 60 units of instruction. $50,000 / 8 / 60 ≅ $100, which is about the price of an excellent ticket for a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. If I flatter myself and suppose that my lectures are twice as valuable as the other forms of contact, and note that they last 50 minutes, not 60, then a little algebra says they cost each student about $175 per hour. The best tickets at the Metropolitan Opera and good tickets at Rolling Stones Concerts cost about that per hour.
That’s why I think I’m obligated to practice my lectures more than ever. Opera singers and the Stones practice a lot for their expensive performances, so I figure I should, too.