Looking for our new site?

Higher Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

< Back to the Education Policy Program

The Academic Graveyard Shift: The Costs of Declining Teaching Loads

Published:  March 29, 2013
Publication Image
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A new report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Education Sector, “Selling Students Short: Declining Teaching Loads at Colleges and Universities,” assigns tenure-line university faculty a remarkable amount of blame for the high price of college. As the report states, bemoaning faculty labor costs is common practice among critics of the academy, who frequently assume the single largest university budget category (usually faculty compensation) holds the most fat. To his credit, author Andrew Gillen moves beyond that simplistic assumption and seeks evidence of ineffective faculty spending. In doing so, he tells a compelling and concerning narrative about university products and faculty priorities: the instructional mission of American higher education is being short-changed, particularly for students and taxpayers. Unfortunately, the report’s conclusions ultimately overreach and overshadow its main value—generating greater policy discussion around the costs and products associated with faculty work.

Gillen uses federal data to demonstrate reductions in tenured and tenure-track (TT) teaching loads across institution types, between academic years 1987-1988 and 2003-2004. He provides a cohesive synthesis of factors widely thought to contribute to this outcome, with some emphasis on Massy and Zemsky’s concept of “the academic ratchet.” The academic ratchet explains that as faculty seek reputational prestige and career mobility through increased attention to their research responsibilities, they must, and readily do, decrease attention to instruction and other responsibilities. The report neglects to mention the other half of this framework, (“the administrative lattice”), which explains how administrators enable faculty to restructure their work: they expand their ranks, also at added cost. Data show administrative growth, both in terms of expenditure and added employees, has been prodigious in recent years.

On the faculty side, the report makes small mention of “adjunctification,” the massive growth of mostly part-time instructors with little to no other work responsibilities competing for attention. There is a lack of data on the degree to which adjunct instruction constitutes a cost exchange versus an added cost, but reduced compensation is of central importance to their use. Gillen calculates his cost of reduced TT course load numbers based entirely on TT faculty salaries. The result is undoubtedly an overestimation of the cost of reduced TT faculty teaching, as we know the replacement of that labor is often accomplished more cheaply with PT instruction. [Editor’s Note: The previous two sentences have been revised from the original post. See note below] One economist figured the average hourly cost for a part-time instructor at about 64 percent less than that of a TT instructor at the time of the Gillen report’s data collection (2004), so the magnitude of that overestimation is plausibly quite large.

The report’s next misstep is to identify a percentage of tuition that could have been avoided had teaching loads not declined. But again, Gillen fails to acknowledge important variables. For example, a high tuition/high aid approach to tuition setting may not reflect the cost of providing services, such as teaching, but rather the size of an institution’s financial aid budget, or the potential for recruiting high-pay students.

Finally, Gillen goes further by assigning dollar-value opportunity costs to teaching load reductions. Specifically, he attempts to answer the question: “How much more revenue would an increase in teaching loads generate?” At Penn State, the report estimates that just one more class per term, per professor would generate nearly $700 million additional annual tuition revenue, besides providing additional enrollment capacity. But why not two, or even three more courses ($1.4 billion in additional tuition revenue is surely better than $700 million, and $2.1 billion even better than $1.4 billion)? Gillen writes, “Most public universities could raise even more by enrolling out-of-state students.” Besides conflicting with the realities of state- and campus-level enrollment planning (particularly regarding out of state students, whose numbers tend to be capped by law), the notion that any cost savings from heavier teaching loads would be passed on to students and taxpayers is not evident. Gillen’s opportunity cost argument strays from his main thesis by speaking to raising new funds and reallocating existing revenue, not reducing costs.

In the end, the report endorses the view that faculty are “essentially stealing from taxpayers and students” through their tenure-protected laziness. Yet, his dollar-value cost assessment of the declining standard of tenure-line labor and the faculty who occupy those positions is specious, and evidence does not point to systematic (or even widespread) faculty negligence.

The value of Gillen’s report lies not in its analysis, but in bringing policy attention to the need for better support of the teaching mission of American higher education. Research is the coin of the realm in academe, and as faculty and administrators increasingly seek reputational prestige, other faculty work stands to suffer. The teaching loads data, with which the report begins, lend weight to the larger question of whether the structure of faculty work has become widely problematic. Until students have a better way to judge teaching quality at the point of college choice, the unbalanced pull of research-based prestige poses real challenges to students and the taxpayers who invest in their learning.

Updated 4.3.2013:This post has been revised to clarify the way in which the report’s author calculated the cost of reduced course loads. I apologize for any confusion that I may have caused by inadvertently misrepresenting this aspect of the report.


Join the Conversation

Please log in below through Disqus, Twitter or Facebook to participate in the conversation. Your email address, which is required for a Disqus account, will not be publicly displayed. If you sign in with Twitter or Facebook, you have the option of publishing your comments in those streams as well.