Higher education: exploring productivity over time

Patti Collett Miles (Maine Business School, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, USA)
Michael Peterson (Department of Agricultural Engineering and Equine Programs, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, USA)
Grant Miles (Maine Business School, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, USA)
Danuse Bement (Maine Business School, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, USA)

Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education

ISSN: 2050-7003

Publication date: 8 October 2018



Higher education plays a critical role in the health of the US national economy. At the same time, there are increasing concerns regarding the cost of higher education and the effectiveness with which universities are using their money. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to examine changes in higher education productivity over the past 15 years across a sample of more than 500 public universities spanning multiple Carnegie classifications. By utilizing measures generated by a commission of the National Education Council, however, attention is more finely focused on the specific costs and outputs related to instructional activity than previous studies.


This research utilizes the recommendations of the National Education Center committee to examine productivity changes in higher education over the past 14 years. To that end, the hypotheses put forth in this research utilize 15 years data of Institutional Primary Education Data, 549 institutions and 3 productivity measures to assess how productivity in higher education has changed between 2002 and 2015.


The results of the present research suggest that instructional activity (measured as multifactor productivity) has increased in all Carnegie classifications between 2002 and 2016.

Research limitations/implications

The present study, organized by Carnegie classification, does not specify the cost of increased instructional productivity. As noted, there are concerns regarding whether at least some of the choices a university might make to increase instructional productivity – such as increased class size and/or an increased use of non-tenure track faculty – could adversely influence the quality of instruction and/or diminish student learning. Further, this research does not examine the relationship between research productivity and increasing instructional productivity.

Practical implications

The present study does not address the bigger question of whether the increasing costs of higher education are justified, because universities produce much more than student credit hours. While, in an ideal world, these various outputs will complement one another and utilize at least some of the same resources, each has its own unique inputs and associated expenses. Given this, an overall assessment of the value or productivity of a university as a whole is a very difficult thing to determine and is well beyond the scope of a single study.

Social implications

The present study explicitly focuses on the instructional component of universities and relationship between output and inputs. Ultimately, providing a clearer picture of how instructional productivity in higher education has been increasing over the past 14 years.


This research is the only research of its kind to the best knowledge of the researchers.



Miles, P., Peterson, M., Miles, G. and Bement, D. (2018), "Higher education: exploring productivity over time", Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 534-546. https://doi.org/10.1108/JARHE-11-2017-0137

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