Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Wrong Way to Lower College Costs

UCSD Coaliton for Educational Justice
A poster for the national Day of Action to Defend Public Education on March 4, 2010

Want to know how to solve the problem of ever-increasing college costs? A lot of people have answers. One of the Very Serious People who can give you one is the economist Richard Vedder, professor at Ohio University, Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. In a recently issued report Vedder and two researchers use data provided by the University of Texas system, which includes nine universities, to argue that the state “could move towards making college more affordable by moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching”—and, more remarkably still, do so “without importantly reducing outside research funding or productivity.”

Vedder’s report is being publicized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a “non-profit, non-partisan research institute” that seeks “to promote and defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas and the nation,” where the ubiquitous Vedder is a Senior Research Fellow. The Foundation has become known for the acerbic (and sometimes ill-informed) critiques of higher education in Texas put forth by one of its directors, Jeff Sandefer. But Vedder’s report is of more than local interest—as is clear from the discussions it has provoked across the blogosphere and beyond.

From coast to coast, great public universities are under attack as expensive luxuries that the nation can no longer afford to support. Governors and state legislators are withdrawing state funds from universities that they continue to regulate. Critics outside and inside the academy denounce professors for doing too much research, teaching too few students, receiving too much pay and offering unwelcome expertise on ideas ranging from climate change to the causes of the Civil War. Meanwhile tuition and other costs continue to rise, and promising students from poor families are reluctant to commit themselves to expensive institutions. In this climate of crisis, ideologues with simple, radical ideas about how to lower costs will attract an audience eager for a solution, especially one that does not include the words “taxes” or “public responsibility.”

Using data on the University of Texas at Austin from a spreadsheet that gives information on salaries and teaching responsibilities for the entire system, Vedder and his colleagues arrived at some striking conclusions. It turns out that just 20 percent of the faculty whose work they analyzed—some 840 out of 4,200—account for nearly 60 percent of the total number of “student credit hours” taught at the university. Student credit hours are calculated as the number of credits awarded for a course multiplied by the number of enrolled students; on average, each of these remarkably productive faculty members teaches 896 student credit hours and 318 students each year. Yet these engaged and effective teachers are also effective researchers—as Vedder argues by pointing out that they bring in 18 percent of the university’s outside income from government and foundation grants. By contrast, the bottom 20 percent carry only 5 percent of student credit hours and attract only 13 percent of the research grant funds.

To Vedder, these data immediately suggest a remedy for rising college costs: “If all faculty were as productive as the top 20 percent of faculty at teaching (that is, each faculty member taught, on average, 896 student credit hours), then the University would require a faculty only 34 percent its present size. This could potentially save up to $323 million in total loaded costs for faculty.” Even more modest changes, though, could result in substantial savings. If the whole faculty became 25 percent as productive as the top quintile, “the University could save roughly $77 million by consolidating its total faculty by releasing 852 faculty.” The remaining staff could handle all of the necessary teaching and continue to do research. Joy in the morning: “moderately increasing faculty emphasis on teaching” will save us by making mass layoffs possible.

At first sight, the analysis seems to hold water. But as soon as you begin to pull on the strands, it turns out to be fragile gossamer and falls apart. At the center stands an untenable assumption: faculty productivity can be measured by the number of students in the seats and by the amount of outside research funds generated. If this notion weren’t so dangerous it would be merely absurd. Is the university’s “product” the hours its students spend in class or the quantity and quality of student learning? Surely it is the latter. Big lectures can be amazingly effective tools for introducing material and spreading enthusiasm for a subject—but they can also be staggeringly soporific. Students often learn more in small classes, whether a group of forty all known to the instructor, or an intensive seminar of ten or fifteen.

It’s not just tweedy fuddy-duddies who believe that small classes are vital to the mission of the American university. Another recent study questions how much students are learning in American higher education. A substantial proportion of students—especially those in the large majors, such as business, education, and communication—show no measurable improvement in thinking or writing in their first two years of college. But those who study core liberal arts subjects with teachers whom they get to know—as students do in small liberal arts colleges, the bastions of small classes and faculty who would rank low on Professor Vedder’s productivity scale—actually do learn. Historically, the University of Texas has been notable for its ability to create rich liberal arts environments in the midst of a great public university. Its internationally renowned Classics program depends on relatively small upper level courses to maintain its quality, in part because of the language requirements for such instruction. Surely Professor Vedder values the teaching of the bedrock of Western Civilization, even if it is “inefficient.”

The university’s Arabic Flagship Program, one of five in the country designed “to create the next generation of global professionals,” offers “[s]tudent-centered classes, a high teacher-to-student ratio, and more contact hours than most other programs”—exactly what students need to become proficient in a foreign language and culture—and exactly the sort of teaching that would register as unproductive by Vedder’s measures. A measure of productivity that exalts class size over all other factors may work for some fields (who is teaching Macroeconomics this year?), but it’s useless for assessing the productivity of faculty in an intensive teaching program.

Equally questionable is the facile assumption—perhaps natural to an economist accustomed to the clarity of monetary calculations—that outside grants adequately measure research achievement. Few historians or other humanists—even the most productive scholars—bring their universities large sums of research money. Grants in these fields are usually made to individuals rather than to the institution, and they do not appear on spreadsheets. Prizes, given for completed work, often tell the observer far more about research quality than grants—given for work not yet done—can possibly do. But they don’t show up on spreadsheets either. And if they did, few of them would impress Professor Vedder. Scholarly societies award the princely sum of $1,000 to the best book in a given field. Even a Guggenheim Fellowship or a Pulitzer would be budget dust on a balance sheet in the sciences.

Even if the data Vedder et al. use are accurate—and some have found multiple flaws in them—they and the analysis they sustain are far too crude to tell us what happens in teaching at a single great university, or to serve as the basis for major decisions about educational policy. Everything about the university, from teaching loads to libraries, should be examined. Many practices should probably change. But three principles should stand: the quality of research is measured by the result, not by the amount of money spent to achieve it; what students learn is more important than the efficiency of the delivery of information; and one size will never, never fit all.

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