American colleges are under serious financial stress. State spending on education is falling, donations are declining and endowments are way off their highs. Meanwhile, the cost of educating students at both public and private colleges is soaring. Part of the problem -- and solution -- is cyclical. As the economy picks up, so will state tax revenues, which will flow back to big state colleges. A rising stock market will also help restore both endowments and donations. But smart colleges would be wise to use this current financial crunch to institute the kinds of cost-saving, productivity-enhancing organizational changes now so widespread in Corporate America. A significant amount of money can be saved for better purposes: financial aid, maintaining modest class sizes, and curbing rising tuition.
Of course, the mission of higher education is to provide a social good, not generate profits. The U.S. can be proud of creating a college system with no equal in Europe or Asia, with some of the best training at the top end and the greatest access at the bottom. Yet there is no excuse for the failure to use the Internet more to shift learning from overcrowded lecure halls to individual rooms and library cubicles while customizing and enriching standard course material. There is no reason why law, medical, engineering, and liberal arts schools at a university should not combine their purchasing of computers and paper clips to save money. There is no explanation why colleges don't boost their productivity by increasing the use of classrooms and labs on weekends, at night or over the summer months.
These are simple steps. And just like some college courses, they are no-brainers.