Higher Ed and the Airbus A380


source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Airbus_A380_overfly_crop.jpg

The Airbus 380s troubles pre-date the global pandemic. The $450 million, 853 (all economy) seat, 4-engine jumbo jet was already considered a challenging economic proposition for airlines. Compared with less expensive and more fuel-efficient wide-bodied twin-engine jets, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB, the A380 is immensely costly and inefficient.

While the A380 was certainly sick before the pandemic, COVID-19 has likely killed the plane. Long-haul flights across international borders from hub airports, the routes that the A380 was designed to serve, have mostly been stopped. In September, the last A380 completed its final assembly in Toulouse, France. In total, only 242 A380s were built. This is one-third of the A380 sales that Airbus projected when the double-decker jumbo was launched 15 years ago.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to have flown on an A380, you know that the experience is unforgettable. Even in coach class, the cabin is spacious, comfortable, and quiet. By all accounts, the A380 is a technological marvel. The A380 is not only enormous. It is safe and reliable and, in every way, impressive.

What the A380 is not is efficient. The plane costs between $26,000 and $29,000 an hour to run, with most of those costs going to fuel ($17,500). In comparison, a long-range twin-engine Boeing 787-9 only costs $11,000-$15,000 per hour to fly. 

Can higher ed learn anything from the failure of the Airbus 380?

Are there analogs to the A380 within our colleges and universities?

Three candidates come to mind: large lecture classrooms, residence halls, and campus offices.

Large Lecture Classrooms:

The large lecture classroom is probably the closest analog to the A380. Both were designed primarily for size, built to take advantage of economies of scale. The large lecture class’s growth, particularly for introductory and gateway courses, was a function of the dramatic increases in enrollments driven by a combination of public policy (the GI Bill) and demographics (the baby boom).

The large lecture class was never designed to maximize student learning, just as the 4-engine jumbo jet was not designed to maximize fuel efficiency. Fuel-efficient twin-engine wide-body jets can fly long-distances efficiently, eliminating the need for refueling stopovers. Blended, low-residency, and online courses do not have the scale of large lecture classes (for the most part) but are preferable if your educational goals involve optimizing for active and experiential learning.

Beyond the challenges of student learning in large face-to-face classes, there is the challenge of density and health. How long will it be before schools are comfortable cramming hundreds (or more) students together into a single classroom? Even after a safe and effective vaccine has been disseminated, will we think that relying on large lecture classes for instruction is a recipe for institutional flexibility and resiliency?

Residence Halls:

Up until the pandemic, campus residence halls seemed like a sound economic bet. Colleges and universities could expect to receive reliable revenues over a residence hall’s lifespan. Students at residential institutions could be required to live on-campus for some portion of their education. As freshman (and sometimes sophomore) dorms don’t operate in a competitive market – with students required to live on-campus – schools could put-off investing in updating and remodeling.

COVID-19 has revealed the extent to which many colleges and universities depend on residence hall fees to balance their books. A 3/13/20 article in IHE called Coronavirus Closures Pose Refund Quandary provides some examples. Residence hall and dining fees make up 16.5 percent of total operating revenues at Smith College. At Amherst College, that figure is 9 percent. Wealth institutions depend less on revenues from room and board. At Harvard, only 4 percent of the operating budget came from these sources. The loss of state funding and the necessity for tuition discounting has caused schools to increase their reliance on auxiliary incomes such as residence halls fees. According to a March 2020 article in Education Dive, auxiliary revenues make up between 9 percent (public university) and 11 percent (private college) revenues. 

Once the pandemic is over, will colleges and universities continue to rely on residence halls to make their business models work? Residence halls are expensive to build, maintain, and renovate. Residence halls are mostly fixed costs in an increasingly variable postsecondary economic environment. We don’t know if the COVID-19 shift to online education will entirely revert to pre-pandemic norms. Demographic shifts, concentrated in the decline of traditional college-age 18-22 cohorts in the Northeast and Midwest, may also decrease demand for residence halls. Colleges and universities may choose to rely on more flexible outsourced relationships for student housing, freeing up capital for investments in their differentiating academic strengths.

Campus Offices:

Like some of you, I can’t wait to get back to my campus office. It will be great to see something different than my house. Much of the joy of working in higher ed comes from the energy of students and colleagues. Plus, it is exhausting to spend one’s days meeting on Zoom.

However, the reality is that the cost of having me (and folks like me) on campus may not be worth the expense. Faculty need offices. They need quiet places to write and to think. Professors need private places to meet with and advise students. There is an enormous need across higher education for adjunct faculty to have quality office space.

But what about those of us who are not professors? Will we need our offices once the pandemic is done? For the most part, the reality is that we’ve been able to adapt to remote work. We may want to have physical offices and face-to-face meetings, but do we need to? It is also possible that the norm of face-to-face work from campus offices did more harm than good in terms of schools’ ability to recruit and retain top talent. Remote work enables geographic flexibility.

Of course, many people who work in higher ed do not enjoy the benefits of an office. The horrible idea of the open office plan has been widely adopted as a cost-saving measure by many schools. Sold as a method to increase collaboration, open offices are a cost-saving action disguised as a productivity strategy. I’m convinced that remote work is almost always preferable to working in an open office.

How much money colleges and universities would save by converting some campus offices to other uses is not obvious. Office space is scarce for adjunct faculty and graduate students on most campuses. Perhaps some campus offices could be converted to group study spaces. Schools with plans for new buildings should think long and hard before creating any new office space.

Of course, there are limits to using the Airbus A380 as a metaphor for thinking about higher education. Flexibility and efficiency should not always be the goal of colleges and universities. This sort of lateral thinking is sometimes illuminating and almost always fun when trying to make sense of how higher education should adapt and evolve in the years ahead.

What do you think the fate of the Airbus A380 reveals about the future of higher education?

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