June 8, 2011

Increase Professorial Efficiency and Tuition Costs Will Go Down

Marc Comtois

Richard Vedder, an economics at Ohio University, explains that one way to cut college tuition costs would be to ask professors to, you know, teach more.

In a study for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Christopher Matgouranis, Jonathan Robe and I concluded that tuition fees at the flagship campus of the University of Texas could be cut by as much as half simply by asking the 80% of faculty with the lowest teaching loads to teach about half as much as the 20% of faculty with the highest loads. The top 20% currently handle 57% of all teaching.

Such a move would require the bulk of the faculty to teach, on average, about 150-160 students a year. For example, a professor might teach one undergraduate survey class for 100 students, two classes for advanced undergraduate students or beginning graduate students with 20-25 students, and an advanced graduate seminar for 10. That would require the professor to be in the classroom for fewer than 200 hours a year—hardly an arduous requirement.

Faculty will likely argue that this would imperil the university's research mission. Nonsense. First of all, at UT Austin, a mere 20% of the faculty garner 99.8% of the external research funding. Second, faculty who follow the work habits of other professional workers—go to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and work five days a week for 48 or 49 weeks a year—can handle teaching 200 hours a year while publishing considerable amounts of research. I have done just this for decades as a professor.

Efficiency and higher education? Wonder if it would work...

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

My favorite professor explained to me privately once, in response to my question of why there were so many poor instructors in the classrooms, "Well, it's like this - our performance evaluations are based upon six criteria. One of them is teaching."

Professors aren't like high school teachers. They are there to publish and conduct research. The instruction of young minds and the tuition it brings is simply a means to that end.

Posted by: Dan at June 8, 2011 3:25 PM

If universities were established as for-profit partnerships, like law, accounting, and management consulting firms (and the original Wall Street investment banks), without government subsidies, we would see both efficiency and quality increase dramatically in a very short time.

Posted by: BobN at June 8, 2011 4:31 PM

Having gone to a college that did not participate, I wondered why my Ivy League daughter had so many "teaching assistants". Actually, I didn't wonder, I figured it out.

The article doesn't mention the breakdown by departments. I doubt that Egytologists draw signficant external grants. If they did, we might know where Egyptian culture came from, rather than simply emerging full blown like Venus from a Cypriot sea. I suspect the same of Fine Arts.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at June 8, 2011 9:04 PM

thinking some more. If the professors who draw the grants (which supplement their salaries) were forced to spend more time teaching, it seems likely that their salaries would be reduced. They would then flee to corporate America. On the other hand, 200 hours, 5 weeks, shouldn't crimp them all that much.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at June 8, 2011 9:09 PM

Dan makes a good point. When tenure decisions come down to publications and research more than teaching evaluations (or amount of teaching), then tenure track faculty members are incentivized to free up as much time for their own research. If teaching was the number one factor for awarding tenure and pay raises, you would get more hours from tenure/tenure track professors in the classroom.

If you are familiar with the decision making culture at most higher education institutions, committees abound. Committee involvement does take up time.

BobN -- Many institutions have become efficient -- in the world of faculty unions and collective bargaining, the more efficient model is to outsource teaching to lower-paid, non-union adjuncts and lecturers. Be wary of the "for-profit" model as a panacea; look at issues in terms of actual outcomes with the Phoenixes and other for profit schools.

Posted by: COLRJ at June 9, 2011 12:25 PM

COLRJ, be equally wary of falsely presented statistics about the for-profit schools, which are rife in the media today. I'm not defending them blindly, only pointing out that their Establishment opponents, especially in the Democrat party, are grinding an ax.

A second problem with those schools is the fact of a government money-handout program that creates strong incentives to game the system and get money without producing value. After all, the students aren't paying with their own money, so far too often they don't pay attention to the value they are getting.

Additionally, I am recommending a different business model from those corporate institutions. A partnership has much broader, participative governance by the people who produce the profits. The fact that the partners (senior faculty) are mutually responsible for each others' wealth is a strong motivation for self-discipline and honesty in managing the organization. It was the partnership structure that made Goldman, Lehman Bros., and Morgan Stanley highly respected, profitable firms; and it was the corporate structure that has undermined their reputations (to the point of failure at Lehman). In a university faculty, partnership would work similarly. It would also defeat the Marxist view of natural antagonism between "labor" (the unionized faculty) and "management" - in a partnership, labor is management and management is labor and they are all owners. Lower-ranking faculty would aspire to partnership in the same way that they do now for tenure. But the financial and intellectual discipline instilled by ownership would radically change the culture. For the better, I believe.

The problem with merely measuring "efficiency" based on low cost is that it outsources teaching to adjuncts and lecturers. This emphasis on low-cost neglects the quality aspect of the value equation.

We could also look at the difference in outcomes within the traditional non-profit schools by comparing the career utility of an education in the "hard science" majors against one in the "liberal arts", especially politicized ones with "studies" in their names.

Posted by: BobN at June 9, 2011 12:56 PM

There is a recent story on Drudge that Yale has killed it's Anti-Semitisim institute. The basic reason is that it couldn't draw grants.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at June 9, 2011 4:21 PM
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