Teaching Loads and Affordability: The University of Texas Data
A recently released Pew/Chronicle survey of American attitudes towards colleges shows that 75 percent disagree with the proposition that “college costs…are such that most people can afford to pay for a college degree.” A majority (57 percent) think that college these days is either “only fair” or ‘”poor” as a value. In that light, more effort is being made to control college costs and enhance the value proposition.
The quintessential battle is now raging in Texas. Governor Perry appropriately wants higher productivity and lower costs, calling for a degree costing only $10,000 in tuition fees. New data suggest that goal is within reach at the state’s most prestigious public university, the Austin campus of the University of Texas.
Pressured by reform groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the University of Texas has released a 821-page document on faculty at that institution: their salaries and benefits (and sources of funding them), teaching loads, research awards, tenure status, and in some cases grading and student-evaluation data. UT begged people to not engage in analysis of the data, saying it is preliminary. But the numbers are so compelling that a team of Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) associates headed by Christopher Matgouranis and Jonathan Robe has started analyzing that data, and CCAP has issued a preliminary report of findings.
As with earlier data from Texas A & M (also released reluctantly), the UT data show huge disparities in salaries between disciplines, campuses, alternative tenure status, levels of research involvement, and the like. Professors with $300,000 salaries are working alongside those making a small fraction of that amount. A surprising number of faculty teach large numbers of students (a few teach as many as 1,000 students annually), for low per-student costs, while others teach literally a single-digit number for huge salaries. We found, among full-time staff, that the 20 percent of faculty with the highest teaching load taught 57 percent of all student credit hours, and accounted for 28 percent of faculty costs, while the lowest 20 percent classified by teaching load taught a paltry 2 percent of the total but accounted for 9 percent of the cost.
We asked the following question: What if the 80 percent of the faculty with the lowest teaching load taught only half as much as the top 20 percent, and the money saved (from needing fewer faculty to teach) was used to reduce tuition fees, how much could they be reduced? The answer: over 50 percent, to around a sticker price of $4,250 annually. The faculty and administration have screamed that “moving in this direction would destroy the University of Texas as one of America’s premier research universities.” This is notwithstanding the evidence in the data that 99.8 percent of research grant money is brought in by only 20 percent of the faculty. If the other 80 percent taught more, research funding would not be impaired more than a trivial amount, if that.
UT leaders have mobilized groups as diverse as UT alumni and the Association of American Universities to fight, before any specific proposal has even been seriously made or considered. The allegation that changes would destroy research are simply not so, but it becomes definitely “not so” only if faculty do something they don’t want to do—adopt a work style similar to that of other professional employees, meaning, roughly, working an eight-hour day and taking only perhaps three weeks or so of vacation each year. The lawyers, accountants and physicians I know mostly work 8-hour days five days a week, doing more during especially busy times (tax season for accountants, trial time for lawyers, major surgeries or emergencies for physicians). Most faculty offices in America are empty most of the time, but especially on Fridays, summer months, etc. Why not ask faculty to work in a manner like the rest of the population?
As I read the data, if the 80 percent of the faculty teaching the least were to each teach 450 credit hours a year (about 160 students), the tuition at Texas could be cut in half, and the state would be a long ways towards achieving the goal of a $10,000 degree. This would be the equivalent of a professor annually teaching one 100-student lecture section, two 25-student advanced-undergraduate or graduate classes, and a 10-student advanced graduate-student seminar—a load of six hours weekly in the classroom, or less than 200 hours a year. That would allow plenty of time for research. (I had loads far higher than that during most of my teaching career, and managed to whip out research that I think meets UT-Austin quality and quantity standards, and I did that simply by working the way most other professionals do). Is it too much to ask that of the UT faculty?
Arguably, the most interesting statistic relates to the teaching load of the faculty getting the most research-grant money—it was only modestly lower than that of the faculty receiving the least amount of funds. In other words, it looks like there is a good-sized cadre of highly productive faculty at UT who both do lots of research and also teach a fairly respectable amount—but there is, lamentably, also a big group that does not do a great deal of either, probably because they don’t have to.
Moreover, the savings from asking some faculty to teach more could be used in alternative ways. For example, also incorporating savings from cutting non-faculty staff (not reported in the data), I think it would be feasible to both reduce tuition fees and taxpayer subsidies (state appropriations) by 30 percent or more by enhancing teaching loads for the 80 percent of the faculty with the lowest loads, and/or perhaps the 80 percent of the faculty with the fewest research accomplishments. Or, if tuition were left unchanged, it would be possible to eliminate most state subsidies totally and move towards privatizing a university that has one of the largest private endowments in America.
This is not about teaching vs. research; it is about moving to a model where faculty and administrators work a load more like that of professional physicians, lawyers, and accountants as a way of making college more affordable to students and/or taxpayers and more responsive to the academic needs of those students.
*This post originally appeared on the “Innovations” blog of The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 23, 2011.