June 23, 2022

interconnected scale effects in American higher education

Higher education in the United States spans five orders of magnitude, from tiny institutions like the 26-person Deep Springs College in the high desert of eastern California to behemoths like the 130,000 cities of the Arizona State University. A new study by researchers at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) examines how scale affects factors such as tuition fees, research output, and teacher salaries. The research, published this week in PLOS ONE, is the first to systematically examine interconnected scale effects in American higher education.

“The power of paper is to quantify [scaling effects], and put it in. . . a serious scientific framework, ”says Geoffrey West, theoretical physicist, former president of SFI and Shannan Distinguished Professor of Complexity at SFI.

West and author Chris Kempes, professor at IFC, have previously examined how the laws of scale dictate the height of trees, sleep of animals, bacteria, and even cities. Scale effects govern all aspects of organisms (and organism-like entities such as cities) from their metabolism and growth to their longevity. Large mammals, for example, use energy more efficiently than their smaller counterparts because the vascular system evolves sublinearly: the bigger they are, the less expensive the infrastructure to circulate blood.

To address the issue of scaling up in higher education, the SFI team, which included Ryan Taylor and Xiaofan Liang, two undergraduates and co-first authors, divided the institutions into categories, such as for-profit colleges, community colleges, private research universities, and public research universities. They found that institutions were optimized for their function. For example, in keeping with their goal of providing affordable education to students, community colleges have been very effective; as they grew up, tuition fees fell and teachers’ salaries increased less. The larger community colleges spent half as much per student as the smaller ones.

On the other hand, as the size of prestigious research universities increased, tuition fees increased, faculty salaries increased, while research output increased dramatically. Kempes, who co-led the project with former SFI postdoctoral fellow Marion Dumas, noted that this superlinear growth – “everything gets bigger, better, faster” was similar to how cities follow the laws. At scale.

“Community colleges, in particular, are a lot more like organizations,” West explains. “They focus on efficiency, and they get there and they’re mean and skinny, and the big universities are rich and fat and getting bigger and bigger.”

Importantly, this efficiency doesn’t seem to hurt completion rates – according to this measure, students always graduate at the same rate, even if they save money. Using data on the mid-career salaries of graduates from 1984 to 2014, the researchers were also able to compare the return on investment of institutions. Again, community colleges have outgrown their weight, competing with more expensive schools in terms of growth in tuition fees relative to graduate salaries as schools get larger.

Why exactly higher education institutions follow the trends they do is still not clear. One mechanism, West suggests, is that institutions try to optimize education and research. Some schools also specifically choose to stay a certain size. In future work, Kempes hopes to separate a true size and category scale effect from a strategy.

While the current paper does not address the policy implications, the authors note that it suggests that the institution’s success should be measured against scale. An institution that appears to be underperforming might actually be outperforming for its size, much like a mammal or a city.

– This press release was originally published on the Santa Fe Institute website


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