The trouble with all such charts is the lack of error bars. I don't believe the spike in "productivity" in one year a few years ago. Discount that, and just look at the overall trend, and you see that there is substantially increasing productivity per employee. This belies the constant accusations here and elsewhere of bloating college staffs.
Another explanation for the rise and then the decline in productivity that the last comment failed to consider is the introduction of technology. As in any other industry higher education benefited from the introduction of new computer related technologies that for a time drove productivity upward. Now that the technology advancements in higher education have slowed the continued growth in productivity per worker has slowed or disappeared. What the chart might just as easily tell us is that the expensive introduction of information technology into American higher education drove up productivity despite the lack of effort of the people that inhabit the field. Those of us responsible for staffing higher education know that administrative staffs are often bloated and tenure track faculty are spending less time in the classroom.
It may be that technology has something to do with the graph, but that is pure conjecture. It's not clear to me that technology drove productivity up in higher education. In some ways it was helpful -- a lot fewer secretaries -- in other ways, it has taken up a lot of time -- computers in the classroom. In any case, to repeat, this is all conjecture. And I still maintain that without error bars, deciphering a trend from a graph such as this is near-impossible.
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