Unaffordable Universities: The High Cost of Chasing “Prestige”

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity has published an important report, “Faculty Productivity and Costs at the University of Texas at Austin,” based on data recently made available to the public, thanks to the efforts of reform-supporting regents at the UT system. Co-authored by Richard Vedder (the Ohio University economist), Christopher Matgouranis and Jonathan Robe, the report uses hard facts to document the real costs of skewing higher education toward prestige and “research” and away from its historic mission of teaching. In fact, Vedder et al. seriously understate the problem, pointing to the need for further analysis of this treasure trove of data.

Some highlights of the study:• The top 20 percent (measured by teaching load) of instructors teach 57 percent of student credit hours. These same faculty members also generate 18 percent of the campus’s research funding.
• The bottom 20 percent of faculty teach only 2 percent of all student credit hours and generate a disproportionately smaller percentage of external research funding.
• Research grant funds go almost entirely (99.8 percent) to a small minority (20 percent) of the faculty; in fact, only 2 percent of the faculty members conduct 57 percent of funded research.
• Non-tenured track faculty teach a majority of undergraduate student hours and a surprising 31 percent of graduate student hours.
• The top quintile (840 instructors out of a total faculty of 4200) teaches an average of 318 students per year. If the entire faculty were to teach at the same rate, UT Austin could teach an astonishing 133,560 students, more than 260% of its present size. If the current tuition burden were spread among such a number, the rate could be dropped by 63%, from $9816 per year (for residents) to only $3632.

Could UT-Austin attract over 130,000 students? In 2009, 31,000 students applied for admission. If they were all admitted, we could assume that most would come (especially with tuition at a deep discount). With the average student spending over four years as an undergraduate, we could expect an undergraduate population of between 66,000 and 132,000, with a proportionate graduate student population of 22,000-28,000. A conservative estimate would be a total of 88,000, an increase of 72%, corresponding to a 42% tuition cut (to $5700). We might realistically hope for something much higher, perhaps close to 130,000.

Does UT have enough classroom space to accommodate something anything like this number? Quite probably. First, in all large lecture classes (with more than 300 students), the lectures could easily be captured and delivered to students over the internet. Second, smaller classrooms are chronically underused at UT-Austin. They are full only during the popular 10 AM- 2 PM Monday to Thursday block. UT offers very few early morning or evening classes, few classes on Friday, and no classes over the weekend. Since 2000, Arizona State University used similar measures to increase its enrollment by 40%, from 50,000 to 70,000. By abolishing the policy of selective admissions, UT could avoid making arbitrary and politically motivated choices between qualified residents, providing equal access at a modest cost to all of the citizens of Texas, as intended by its founders.Fifty years ago, the average tenured professor at UT taught eight courses a year. Now, the average is well below four courses a year, with non-tenure-track instructors picking up the slack. As Vedder et al. document, non-tenure-track instructors teach 52.4% of all undergraduate student-hours, and a surprisingly high 31.3% of graduate student-hours. The mandarins at UT claim that teaching and research are ‘inseparable’. If so, why do they place non-researchers in front of the classroom over 50% of the time? Aren’t UT students being denied quality instruction more than half of the time, if research is really an indispensable prerequisite for good teaching?

 UT-Austin relies so heavily on non-tenure-track instructors because they are far cheaper than tenure-track professors. Their salaries are about one-third as high, and they teach twice as many classes and at least three times as many students. The Vedder analysis obscures this fact. In fact, it turns out that the top quintile (as measured by teaching load) earns slightly more on average than the other quintiles. How can this be? The reason is this: the top quintile is composed of two quite disparate groups, a large number of underpaid lecturers, and small number of highly paid full professors teaching large lecture sections with the help of teaching assistants (graduate students, who do most of the grunt work, including grading). I would be interested in learning the median salary of the various quintiles. I’m sure that this would reveal an inverted pyramid, with a negative correlation between salary and teaching load.

We can reveal this fact in another way, by turning the data around: organize the faculty according to salary (with the top quintile paid the most and the bottom quintile the least) and then look at the comparative teaching load of the various strata. I selected two UT departments at random, both from the College of Liberal Arts (the largest and most representative college at UT): English and philosophy. The two departments differ significantly in teaching load, with 175 students per professor in philosophy and 125 in English. In philosophy, the bottom quintile (as measured by salary) taught over 300 students per year, while the top quintile taught only 162. The bottom quintile taught 31% of the students and earned only 12% of the total salary cost. The story in English is similar, with the bottom quintile teaching on average over 135 students, and the top quintile 102. In English, the burden of teaching is concentrated on the fourth quintile, which is made up largely of ‘permanent’ associate professors – professors who have earned tenure but who have been passed up for promotion to the rank of ‘full’ professor because of an inadequate research record. The bottom two quintiles (40%) in English teach 47% of all students and receive just 28% of the total salary.

The decrease in faculty productivity at UT is no accident: it is the fruit of deliberate policy by successive UT administrations over the past 20 years. Just ten years ago, the student/faculty ratio at UT was 20 to 1 (corresponding to about 200 students annually in the courses of each instructor); it is now just over 11. Not coincidentally, this increase in faculty numbers coincided with an explosion in ‘deregulated’ tuition at UT. Why were so many additional faculty added, at such high cost, both to the taxpayer and the student? Simply to improve UT’s rank in the now almost-defunct US News college ratings. Perhaps a lower student/faculty ration is a necessary condition for a high level of quality of instruction, but it is certainly not a sufficient condition, and no attention was paid to discovering under what conditions additional faculty would actually result in better educated students.

As Vedder et al. show, when the defenders of the status quo defend the low teaching loads as necessary for the sake of ‘research’, they do not mean externally funded research. Only a small number of professors at UT are responsible for nearly all of the external funding of research: 14% of the faculty account for over 96% of the funding. The vast majority of tenured professors receive no external funding at all, and yet many of them are in the bottom quintile, as measured by teaching load (83% of those in the bottom quintile receive no funding). The low teaching loads at UT are justified, not in order to attract research funding, but in order to enable professors to write and publish research articles and monographs, thereby enhancing the “prestige” of the university. This begs the question: does all of this “prestigious” research do anyone any earthly good? Mark Bauerlein of Emory has researched this question and shown that 60% of published articles are cited by no one and, one may assume, read by very few. Over 18,000 articles have been written in 20 years on Shakespeare alone: a worthy topic, but such a glut of “information” merely frustrates the student pursuing a truly education. As T. S. Eliot put it in ‘Choruses from The Rock,’ “Where is the wisdom have we lost in knowledge; where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

The problem with the pursuit of ‘prestige’ is that it is an inherently zero-sum game. What prestige UT gains must come at the loss of a university somewhere else (Berkeley or Columbus). This leads to an endless arms race in rising salaries and falling workload for article-generating academic stars, accelerating the rise in costs for students while distracting energy and initiative away from the quality of instruction.


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