Putting a Price on Professors

There's a trend toward using metrics to identify ways to stem the skyrocketing cost of higher education. The likeliest result is to devalue the "education" component.

Commenter Sam calls to my attention Friday’s WSJ story “Putting a Price on Professors,” about a trend toward using metrics to identify ways to stem the skyrocketing cost of higher education. It’s a longish piece and I commend it to you in its entirety.  But this excerpt will give you the flavor of it:

A 265-page spreadsheet, released last month by the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, amounted to a profit-and-loss statement for each faculty member, weighing annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained.

[…]

The balance sheet sparked an immediate uproar from faculty, who called it misleading, simplistic and crass—not to mention, riddled with errors. But the move here comes amid a national drive, backed by some on both the left and the right, to assess more rigorously what, exactly, public universities are doing with their students—and their tax dollars.

As budget pressures mount, legislators and governors are increasingly demanding data proving that money given to colleges is well spent. States spend about 11% of their general-fund budgets subsidizing higher education. That totaled more than $78 billion in fiscal year 2008, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.

The movement is driven as well by dismal educational statistics. Just over half of all freshmen entering four-year public colleges will earn a degree from that institution within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And among those with diplomas, just 31% could pass the most recent national prose literacy test, given in 2003; that’s down from 40% a decade earlier, the department says.

“For years and years, universities got away with, ‘Trust us—it’ll be worth it,'” said F. King Alexander, president of California State University at Long Beach.

But no more: “Every conversation we have with these institutions now revolves around productivity,” says Jason Bearce, associate commissioner for higher education in Indiana. He tells administrators it’s not enough to find efficiencies in their operations; they must seek “academic efficiency” as well, graduating more students more quickly and with more demonstrable skills. The National Governors Association echoes that mantra; it just formed a commission focused on improving productivity in higher education.

This new emphasis has raised hackles in academia. Some professors express deep concern that the focus on serving student “customers” and delivering value to taxpayers will turn public colleges into factories. They worry that it will upend the essential nature of a university, where the Milton scholar who teaches a senior seminar to five English majors is valued as much as the engineering professor who lands a million-dollar research grant.

And they fear too much tinkering will destroy an educational system that, despite its acknowledged flaws, remains the envy of much of the world. “It’s a reflection of a much more corporate model of running a university, and it’s getting away from the idea of the university as public good,” says John Curtis, research director for the American Association of University Professors.

I’ve been complaining about the transformation of higher ed into a “customer service” business and about the move toward having universities run by bean counters with graduate degrees in faux disciplines like “Higher Education Administration” for years.   But I’m not necessarily against the movement described here.

Many if not most states have too many universities, too many overlapping programs and departments, and are generally run as if it were still the 1940s.   Certainly, this was the case in the state of Alabama, where I earned my three degrees. Fifteen public four-year universities is about ten too many for a relatively small state with only 4.3 million people.  And that actually understates the number, since many of these schools have satellite campuses in other parts of the state.  Troy University, where I used to teach and Steven Taylor still does, has major campuses in Troy, Dothan, and Montgomery.   Which means that Montgomery alone has three four-year campuses funded by the public.  Twenty-six public two-year colleges is likely too many as well.    (There are also numerous private institutions which compete against these, but they’re at least not as heavily subsidized.)

Even aside from the macro picture, there are doubtless plenty of professors who are dead weight.  Either they’ve long stopped being effective teachers or researchers but hang on due to tenure, or they were hired in a different demand climate and now don’t have enough students to justify their salaries.

The problem, however, is that the metrics the educrats are likely to use won’t address these problems and, indeed, will exacerbate them.  At TAMU, they’re reportedly “weighing annual salary against students taught, tuition generated, and research grants obtained.”

  • “Students taught” is a useful floor metric.  If a professor is mostly teaching sections of three to five students and not doing much in the way of research, they’re likely not pulling their weight.  (I qualify only because there may be disciplines and circumstances where those low numbers would be justified.)  But the obvious educrat response to this metric is to jam more people into each section of introductory classes and to cancel lower demand specialty courses required for majors, making it very difficult for students to tailor their degree.
  • “Tuition generated” is not a metric with which I’m familiar.  Indeed, aside from a handful of superstars here and there, I can’t conjure how it is that a faculty member will “generate” tuition.  Students come to institutions, not to study with individual professors.
  • “Research grants obtained” is a very useful metric in a handful of disciplines, notably in the hard sciences.   But most research in most disciplines don’t and shouldn’t require research grants.   Regardless, the amusing thing about this measure is that it’s contrary to the others.   That is, it encourages professors to spend their time and energy chasing grants and writing up research proposals in order to generate revenues that they bring in to the school . . . most of which is spent pursuing the research in question.   Aside from PhD-granting institutions, where graduate students can join in on the project and enhance their prospects for future employment, this process will have the effect of taking professors away from their core function of teaching students.

Additionally, as the excerpt from the WSJ story suggests, the likely outcome is to de-value traditional academic programs like English, philosophy, and history in favor of those where lots of money can be generated from the outside.

And, of course, while professors are expensive, they’re not the main expense.   Administrators outnumber faculty at most universities these days. But I suspect that won’t get the scrutiny it deserves.

UPDATE:  See also UCLA lawprof Steve Bainbridge‘s “The joy of knowledge for its own sake.”

UPDATE 2: Tennessee lawprof  Glenn Reynolds adds, “The real problem is that higher education isn’t providing enough of a benefit to its graduates, not that universities aren’t extracting enough money from the students.” Indeed.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Pete says:

    Will the bricks and mortar institutions eventually be replaced by the internet?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Will the bricks and mortar institutions eventually be replaced by the internet?

    Frankly, if universities continue their move towards mass production and training/credentialing rather than education, there’s not much reason not to move most second- and third-tier institutions online. I don’t think the elite schools will go that way anytime soon but there’s probably no reason to keep schools that exist mainly to credential schoolteachers open in their current form.

  3. Mr. Prosser says:

    It is my opinion the proliferation of state schools, satellite campuses and on-line courses if the result of trying to enroll as many students as possible regardless of academic ability or past scholastic performance. In my state of slightly over 5 million souls there are at least twelve state schools which run the gamut from the flagship university to small mountain-isolated schools designed to give a business education to kids whose life plan is to ski, kayak and rock climb. Due to the present economy many of these schools will shrink, the legislature will most definitely cut (slash) the education budget come January. But I don’t think any of the schools is going to fold any time soon although in line with your thought that the trend is towards mass production and training/certification, many of these schools could revert to two year junior colleges which many were up until about twenty years ago.

  4. Roberta Taussig says:

    Forgive me if this is blasphemy, but proportionally, how much of the cost of the publicly funded universities goes to the athletic department, specifically to NCAA football?

  5. James Joyner says:

    proportionally, how much of the cost of the publicly funded universities goes to the athletic department, specifically to NCAA football?

    Only 14 of 106 schools in the NCAA’s top division are making money; the rest are losing money. But I don’t know where the shortfall is being made up. Likely from boosters and outside fundraising rather than tax dollars. (All these schools aren’t public, of course.)

  6. Anon says:

    I do think some changes are in order, but it’ll be awfully tricky. For example, let’s say a professor doesn’t get research grants, but regularly publishes in top journals. This indirectly contributes to the bottom line, because it adds to the prestige of the university, which improves the odds that it will get grants, etc. But how do you put a dollar value on that?

  7. wr says:

    A couple decades back, the powers that be decided that the entertainment industry would run much better if they got all those filmmakers out of executive suites and put in MBAs. The result is obvious to anyone over the age of 16 who’s tried to go to a movie in the last ten years, as well as to anyone who watches the number of attendees instead of the higher-priced hyped grosses. Now we’re being told that this would be a good thing for the academy as well – get rid of all those people who understand the purpose of higher education and replace them with those who only understand “business.”

    The MBAs have killed the music industry, they’re wiping out network television, they’ve all but ruined publishing, and they’re destroying the movie business. And let’s not even look at what they’ve done to their own industry — banking.

    But these are the guys we want running our universities. Because they’ll make us efficient.

    Thanks, but no thanks.

  8. The “Students taught” is problematic because taken in a straightforward fashion it means that faculty who teach large lecture classes likely of the general studies variety are the most valuable faculty members on campus.

    Of course, if everyone only taught such classes there would be no degrees produced let alone graduate ones. (And I certainly know James knows this, but it worth noting for the conversation).

    By definition general studies classes have larger numbers of students, specialized major-level courses less and grad classes even less.

  9. ponce says:

    Time to defund colleges and bring on corporate-provided, government-subsidized apprenticeships.

  10. Clio says:

    “Additionally, as the excerpt from the WSJ story suggests, the likely outcome is to de-value traditional academic programs like English, philosophy, and history in favor of those where lots of money can be generated from the outside.”

    Which didn’t make much sense in the article, much less here. The History Department the WSJ analyzed was turning a profit. It was those highly prized scientists, busy chasing grants and setting up labs, whose departments were losing money.

    More science = more expenses + more washed out students + more administrators to deal with both.

  11. willis says:

    “Either they’ve long stopped being effective teachers or researchers but hang on due to tenure, or they were hired in a different demand climate and now don’t have enough students to justify their salaries.”

    Here’s an idea. Put those who don’t have enough students in charge of indoctrinating students with Marxism and the evils of being white and leave the actual teaching to the others. It should be a much more effective division of labor with everyone improving their job skills and pleasing the bean counters with increased productivity.

  12. Jonathan says:

    I think “tuition generated” is simply the number of students taught * the money each one is paying to be there.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Clio:

    “The History Department the WSJ analyzed was turning a profit. It was those highly prized scientists, busy chasing grants and setting up labs, whose departments were losing money.”

    I’m guessing the lack of grants was made up for with a ton of large, survey sections in the general studies (core) curriculum Steven Taylor referred to earlier.

  14. sam says:

    “the likely outcome is to de-value traditional academic programs like English, philosophy, and history”

    Was a time, hard to believe, when education was believed to be a preparation for living not for making a living. Quaint, no?

  15. sam says:

    “Will the bricks and mortar institutions eventually be replaced by the internet?”

    Speaking of which. I’m currently “taking” Prof. David Blight’s (Yale) class on The Civil War and Reconstruction (no credit, of course). Yale offers a number of such classes online, see, Open Yale Courses. They’re not contemporaneous with the actual course — Prof Blight’s course was given in 2008. And while I can’t buy all the books listed in the syllabus, I can get a lot of the readings from the net. The lectures are streamed to you with the added benefit of your having the transcript of the lecture to print out if you want (something the students didn’t have). Check out the list of courses at the link, pretty interesting (next for me is the course on Paradise Lost).

  16. Janis Gore says:

    Gawd, Milton bores the daylights out of me. The most interesting thing about him is that he wrote Areopagitica after being censored for writing tracts on divorce, because he was married to an unloving and spendthrift woman.

    Then went on to become a paid censor for the government.

  17. There are also numerous private institutions which compete against these, but they’re at least not as heavily subsidized

    The percentage of funds that private universities receive from government sources is nearly the same as that for public universities, it just comes through different channels (private universities get most from federal grants, public mostly from state per-student reimbursments).

  18. JKB says:

    Was a time, hard to believe, when education was believed to be a preparation for living not for making a living. Quaint, no?

    Turned out few were willing to take on a $100,000 in debt for an “education” when it wasn’t tied to a promise of future earnings. So the universities started selling themselves as a gateway to the American Dream.

    One impact was their product displaced many workers in jobs where the incumbents had operated quite well for years without a “degree.” Suddenly, however, with the growing “educated” credentialed pool of workers, a degree was required. Part of the reason a “degree” isn’t as profitable anymore is that most of that displacement has occurred so their are no easy “uneducated” to replace with the credentialed.

  19. JKB says:

    It occurs to me that this could simply be an extension of the “solution” for primary and secondary education. Performance pay, anyone? It might be worthwhile to notice that the productivity metrics are to be applied to the professors but no discussion of the value of all the education bureaucrats that have expanded so rapidly. Similar to how their is always a cry to put the screws to the teachers but never a mention of assessing the benefit of all those over-priced administrators in the local school districts.

  20. Janis Gore says:

    JKB, @20:49,

    I saw that happening in 1984 at the tel company I worked for then. Management started to require a degree and it didn’t matter what kind.

  21. HankP says:

    I’m afraid Glenn Reynolds is wrong as usual. A college degree provides quite a bit of value to graduates.

  22. Janis Gore says:

    For the third time,Sam, I might try the series at Yale. All authors put me to sleep at one time or another.

  23. Tea Partier says:

    You know, I’ve pilfered an idea that I read about somewhere… And I’m thinking it could be the most amazingly transformative idea in higher education yet.

    I’m thinking of doing some off season hiring of top notch professors to give me the curriculum they’ve created on taxpayer dime and video of their lectures. Since the vast majority of curriculum does not change signficantly over 10 to 20 years, this one set of videos could consist of the vast majority of many majors. In fact, it should be possible to have pre-recorded and packaged curriculum for many majors, and the cost per student, since you would have minimal teaching staff full time, could be very small. Knowledge is NOT expensive, nor is teaching. Only cutting edge need be expensive at all, and that could be left to subsidized, publicly sponsored, or other elite institutions. For the rest of us, it would be as simple as homeschool for college.

  24. James says:

    L.A. Parental Trigger: Any comment ?

  25. James says:

    Tea Partier: Now you have just fired half of the Educators. 🙂

    Current cost are a factor of 7x the norm.

  26. john personna says:

    I think it was an interesting exercise, but a school would obviously be crazy to run on just one metric, let alone this one.

    First, because this kind of vertical accounting does hide any middle-management bloat burdening all classes and majors. When someone needs a room for parasite study, he’s probably debited for the space, and the cleaning, and the management of the space and cleaning, etc.

    If the “bean counters” made this study, did they provide line items for bean counting? 😉

    But with those caveats aside, I can see how costs to supply a major or a class would be useful information. In fact, it would be astonishing to think that colleges had been running without these data.

    You just want to combine it with other info. Given finite resources, do we support major X or major Y? Well, what does it cost, what is the demand, and what does it contribute to the economy of the region?

    A million dollar loss on aerospace engineering might be no big deal, if the state is pulling down a hundred million in taxes on the aerospace industry, etc.