What if all college professors were forced to be higher-education entrepreneurs, with salaries pegged to the number of students they attract to their classes? That’s the model recently proposed by a Texas professor who styled himself “Publius Audax” on a Pajamas Media blog. Publius launched his proposal, he wrote, as the solution to a projected $25 billion budget shortfall over the next two years that is likely to hit the Texas higher education hard. Publius’ argument is that his “entrepreneurial professor model,” when coupled with other reforms would “harness the power and efficiency of the market” to make public higher education cheaper and better. The other reforms include abolishing tenure, eliminating state subsidies to public campuses, getting rid of “core curricula” (which nowadays are nothing more than pointless distribution requirements, and allowing private “charter colleges” (both nonprofit and for-profit) onto public campuses in order to provide more competition.
Hmm, my own undergraduate alma mater was founded by a highly successful entrepreneur, the railroad baron Leland Stanford. What if college professors were more like Leland Stanford and less like the brilliant but economically illiterate head-in-the-clouds types who taught at Stanford when I went there?
Here is how Publius’ entrepreneurial professor model would work: All professors and lecturers would receive a base “living wage” of $30,000 plus benefits. Beyond that it would be up to the professors themselves to generate a “tuition-based bonus” for themselves consisting of 50 percent of the tuition income generated by students enrolled in their classes, “up to a maximum of 320 students (960 student hours).” All instructors would be allowed to teach up to eight classes a year. In order to gin up the price competition further, professors, department heads, and even entire colleges could offer tuition rebates to students, the money to come out of the professors’ salary bonuses. Professors with ultra-large classes could hire teaching assistants—but the money would again have to come out of their salary bonuses. And to ensure that professors wouldn’t game the system by handing out easy A’s to all comers, there would be a strict grading curve. No more than 15 percent of students in any given class could receive an A-grade, and another 15 percent would have to either flunk or receive a D. Professors whose grades deviated from the curve would lose their bonus for every student whose grade exceeded the curve. This would not only keep the professors in line, Publius argues, but would “transform the campus culture, replacing partying with studying” as students scrambled to stay out of the bottom of the class.