Three Things Colleges Don’t Want Us to Know


Universities are in the knowledge business, and the creation and
dissemination of it is at the very core of what colleges do. Yet some forms of
knowledge about higher education itself are either unknown, or hidden from the
public. Why? Release of the information would prove embarrassing and possibly
even costly to the school.

1. What Are the Teaching Loads?

This is prompted by an email I received from Bill Armstrong, President
of Colorado Christian College and former two-term U.S. Senator. He is looking
for data on faculty teaching loads and cannot find it. Going to the latest Digest of Education Statistics, I learn
that there were 7,500 faculty members teaching agricultural or home economics
courses in 2003 between the ages of 35 and 39, or that there were 1,959
full-time equivalent faculty teaching in Delaware in 2009. But in over 20
tables on staffing, there is not a word on teaching loads.

Why? I suspect the reason is simple: faculty don’t teach very much, and
far less than they used to. I have been around higher education for over 50
years, and my recollection is that at middling quality state schools in the
early 1960s, most faculty taught around 12 hours a week. At those same schools
today, the average load is almost certainly not more than 9 hours. At
top-flight universities, faculty taught about six hours a week in the 1960s,
and often 3 hours or 4.5 hours (one semester, one course, the second semester,
two courses) now.  On average, we have
seen at least a 25 percent reduction in loads.

Why? We are told it is because of the need to expand research output.
And surely the number of academic journals and other outlets has exploded.  But what percent of the research gets
seriously read or cited? Mark Bauerlein of Emory, a regular contributor to
Minding the Campus, has demonstrated that vast amounts of research are seldom
even cited, and that the number of articles written in the last 25 years or so
about, say, Shakespeare, reaches into the tens of thousands. Do not diminishing
returns set in regarding academic research like it does everything else in

2. How Do Pell Students Do?

Let us move on to the Pell Grant program, on which our nation spends more than $40 billion a year. Surely with such a large expenditure, we would have and publish detailed statistics on how recipients fare in college, right? NO. What is the percent of Pell Grant recipients at four-year colleges receiving their degree within four, five, or six years?  The Department of Education has such data for graduates of every accredited school in the country -why don’t they have it for those receiving the federal government’s largest grant program?

My guess is that the figure is so embarrassingly low that the government doesn’t want it published. I wrote a year or so ago that the Pell Grant graduate rate, after six years, was 40 percent, based on a bit of statistical estimation I did. No one seriously questioned my result. For every two students who -after six years -succeed to get a degree, three fail. Yet spending on this program has expanded enormously in recent years.

3. How Much Do Students Actually Learn?

But these forms of forbidden knowledge are almost trivial compared with the biggest one: what do students learn in college? Do graduating seniors have more general civic knowledge or greater critical thinking skills than beginning freshmen? Now I am the first to admit that measuring the totality of the learning experience is challenging, and some things colleges might do -such as teaching leadership skills -are hard to quantity. But there are many forms of learning that can be quantified -that is what colleges do all the time with their examination of students. And colleges often have results of tests like the Critical Learning Assessment that are very useful.

The reason colleges don’t want to provide this information is simple: it is embarrassing and potentially harmful. If Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (authors of Academically Adrift) are even approximately right, the advancement in critical thinking skills amongst college students is embarrassingly small. Moreover, at some schools, “small” may be “zero.”  In these situations college in reality serves more of a social function, a place to make friends, party, and “network,” rather than being a serious learning community.     

I usually don’t like government meddling in our lives. But with hundreds of billions of taxpayer money involved, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for Congress to pass a law providing us with some of this previously forbidden knowledge.

Richard Vedder directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, teaches at Ohio University, and is an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

15 thoughts on “Three Things Colleges Don’t Want Us to Know

  1. Well, clarenancy, since you have a masters degree and are a 15 year employee of a university, how does your son qualify for a Pell grant?

  2. What is learned is hard to measure. Is it harder to do that than to teach a class on Shakespeare? These are college professors we are talking about. Shouldn’t we at least have a half-dozen rough measures of learning we can start from and argue about?
    Oh yeah, we do. And they are unpopular because they tell us the answers we don’t want to hear.

  3. I returned to grad school at age 50 in the late 90’s. Program was rated ~20th in the nation; not Ivy, but very strong. Senior, tenured faculty taught one course, usually a seminar. Junior faculty got the undergrad courses, so they usually did 2 per semester. All faculty were available for student consultations, but usually in a limited time frame: 10-2 Tues, Thurs, for example. It took a while to figure out they didn’t keep regular hours, and they were on their own about when they came to work. To be fair, they never cancelled classes. Teaching Assistants were used for the Intro course. As a doctor, used to 6AM rounds, late night ER calls, and getting home late for 25 yrs, I was struck by how different it was. Some made more than I did. Not shirkers, just a different culture

  4. 4. How much of what students learn is true, and how much just ain’t so? I’d bet the former is smaller than the latter for many degree programs, especially in the “soft sciences” and Liberal Arts programs.

  5. Don’t know if I’m indicative or not, but I received a Pell Grant on the grounds that I was a “non-traditional student/displaced homemaker” (single mother who is over the age of 24).
    I got my BS in Education in 4 years graduating as a national honor and on the college Deans list with a 4.0 GPA.
    I went on to get a masters, using the assistantship program, and am writing this while on lunch break at the university where I’ve been gainfully employed for the past 15 years.
    My son is currently on a Pell Grant working toward a degree in chemical engineering.
    I’m sure people abuse the program, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the program is designed to be abused. But there are also people who make very good use of it as a means to divert long term dependence on the state.

  6. Couple of thoughts here:
    Community colleges — perhaps rightly so – are sensitive to this “graduated” stat. There are many people in those schools that are either there to take fun courses, or continuing ed course, or maybe just the courses needed for a cert. Each of those counts as a “failure” if we only count those who get an AA diploma.
    Second, a HUGE gap exists when it comes to high school statistics. There are no stats to say exactly how many high school grads go to college, and of those, how many graduate. And inside of that stats, of course, is an absence of those students did in subject matters, so corrections can be made in their college prep courses back home.

  7. Excellent set of numbers to seek. You are definitely right about the load redistribution from teaching load and research. All those papers and only a handful of people in the world care about each one, maybe?
    Pell grant numbers — ought to be some way to extract hard data on that.
    Learning — bad news on that. Hardly anybody knows whether students have acquired any learning. And with online courses, you are talking about a pig in a poke, cheating through the roof, a bad situation.
    Good article.

  8. The sad truth is that faculty are not evaluated on the basis of their effectiveness as educators, but as researchers.
    Depending upon the department and discipline in question, tenure is based upon either how many “A pub” articles a faculty member has been able to land, or how much grant money they have been able to attract.
    Why does this matter so much?
    Because tenure isn’t just about obtaining lifetime employment, but about keeping the job you already have. A faculty member in a tenure track position has just so many years to earn tenure, or they are summarily fired and must find a placement elsewhere, which usually means less pay for more work at a lower rate school, if they’re able to find a placement at all.
    In the past several years, the requirements to get tenure have increased, often dramatically. Schools and departments that are highly ranked often require 4 or even 6 “A pubs” to get tenure, whereas in the past someone could get in with 1 or 2, especially if they had strong “B pubs” and/or conference papers to their name.
    When submitting papers that often take 2 years to do the research for to a journal with an acceptance rate of 8% or less, actually getting 4 or 6 papers through before their “tenure clock” of 5 or 6 years runs out is extremely difficult under the best of circumstances.
    Having to teach students takes time away from research, less than stellar performance at which guarantees termination. So it is no surprise that faculty members do all they can to reduce their teaching load and pawn as much as they can off onto grad students.
    Worse yet, and this is probably an even dirtier secret, is that a faculty member seeking tenure whose student reviews are too positive is seen as a riskier proposition than someone whose reviews are more negative. In other words someone who is good at teaching has a cloud over their head because it is feared that once they get tenure, their research efforts will dry up because they would rather teach.
    As long as departments and schools are ranked on research rather than the effectiveness of their graduates, this will not change.
    The good news, and this is most certainly an unintended consequence, is that many faculty, seeking an escape from the grunt work of teaching, have embraced the emergence of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.
    Why spend hours every week lecturing when you can create a single set of lectures that all your students can use without you having to be involved? It has been pretty obvious from the Coursera classes I’ve been studying that the faculty involved retain the copyright for the lectures produced. They’re not so much interested in the idea of bringing free education to the world as they are in the idea of using these lectures as the basis for the classes they’re already teaching.

  9. I’m an adjunct at a small college in the Northeast. I teach to the 25% or so of the class that is engaged in the subject matter, the others are there to get three credits and don’t put in very much effort, if any. This includes students who are majors in the course subject.

  10. And why is a college education so much more expensive than it used to be? There are more and more dollars chasing what is essentially a fixed resource. Colleges and universities are limiting the number of students that enroll every year simply so they can charge higher and higher tuition. When the price of a good or service outpaces the rate of inflation by an order of magnitude you know there’s a serious problem.

  11. Vedder’s speculates about teaching load with no data. The standard teaching load at research universities remains 2 courses/semester — though the load is 2 & 3 at universities like SMU (Dallas). The standard teaching load at teaching universities/colleges remains 3 courses/semester — that means 12 units for schools on a “quarter” or “trimester’ system (courses = 4 credits each) and 9 units for standard semesters.

  12. Nice article, Richard. One more thing colleges don’t want students to know — crippling student debt is destroying futures.
    I wrote an article here explaining three ways in which the IRS is far more even handed than the student debt industry.
    If you are too immature to know how to drink a beer when you are 18, then certainly at 18, you can’t form the required mental state to agree to a lifetime of debt that will haunt every single move you make.

  13. I recently performed an inspection at a multi-million dollar project I’m working on, and the young guy who was escorting me through the facility and taking notes was an intern from a local university hired on for the summer.
    The subject came around to education, and he stated flat out that he had learned more in one summer on the job for his chosen field than he had as yet learned the entire time in college.
    Being of an age where I have previously worked with old school engineering types who were educated all the way back into the 1940’s and 1950’s (but who have since mostly retired or died), this didn’t really surprise me as the quality of graduates IMHO has degraded over time – even if it has always been true that you learn more on the job than you do in the classroom.
    The thing that DID surprise me though, was his statement that he had even been told by his adviser that college was less about learning and more about being independent of his family.
    I believe his phrase was along the lines of “breaking family ties” or some such comment.
    If this is the rule rather than the exception, it’s no wonder we have such societal as well as academic issues.

  14. I’d like to expand on your first point, “What Are the Teaching Loads?” As a full-time college instructor I agree with the sentiment that we aren’t teaching enough, but you have to temper this view with the fact that colleges are currently working on decreasing the number of full-time faculty, who do teach 20+ hours a week, with adjunct faculty who teach 3-8 hours a week. This vastly skews the average hours a college teacher spends in the classroom. The reason for this switch is economic, as adjunct faculty are paid less per hour and do not receive benefits. Many colleges have been conducting studies to prove to themselves that moving to part-time faculty won’t have a single effect on the learning environment and have been using the results of these studies as a stick against their full time faculty when they request raises or an increase in contact (teaching) hours. Many instructors and professors I know would love for their college to raise the limit of contact hours so they could take on more sections or classes, but again, the shift towards part-time faculty has blunted many full-time faculty’s ability to take on more responsibility.

  15. Demanding accountability when tax money is involved is hardly unreasonable. Whether getting all that tax money involved in the first place is a different question on which liberals and libertarians are likely to violently disagree.
    It may be worse than zero. I’ve seen at least one study suggesting that knowledge of civics actually decreased slightly in at one Ivy League school during four years of undergraduate education. I don’t know if it was a case of forgetting faster than they learned, or learning stuff that wasn’t so.

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