The Scalability, Efficiency and Complexity of Universities and Colleges: A New Lens for Assessing the Higher Educational System

by   Ryan C. Taylor, et al.

The growing need for affordable and accessible higher education is a major global challenge for the 21st century. Consequently, there is a need to develop a deeper understanding of the functionality and taxonomy of universities and colleges and, in particular, how their various characteristics change with size. Scaling has been a powerful tool for revealing systematic regularities in systems across a range of topics from physics and biology to cities, and for understanding the underlying principles of their organization and growth. Here, we apply this framework to institutions of higher learning in the United States and show that, like organisms, ecosystems and cities, they scale in a surprisingly systematic fashion following simple power law behavior. We analyze the entire spectrum encompassing 5,802 institutions ranging from large research universities to small professional schools, organized in seven commonly used sectors, which reveal distinct regimes of institutional scaling behavior. Metrics include variation in expenditures, revenues, graduation rates and estimated economic added value, expressed as functions of total enrollment, our fundamental measure of size. Our results quantify how each regime of institution leverages specific economies of scale to address distinct priorities. Taken together, the scaling of features within a sector and shifts in scaling across sectors implies that there are generic mechanisms and constraints shared by all sectors which lead to tradeoffs between their different societal functions and roles. We particularly highlight the strong complementarity between public and private research universities, and community and state colleges, four sectors that display superlinear returns to scale.


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