The PJ Tatler

Study: Higher ed bubble could be solved by getting faculty to teach more

Tuition costs for higher education double the pace of inflation, while more Americans believe higher ed is no longer affordable and question whether it is even a good value. At the same time, taxpayers are on the hook for ever increasing costs to support public universities. What should we do to bring costs back in line, while protecting university research and deliver more value for the cost of tuition at the same time? And given the strong incentives to maintain the status quo, what can we do?

A distinguished economics professor at Ohio University may have an answer.  Dr. Richard Vedder studied faculty activities at the University of Texas at Austin and found that tuition rates could be lowered by doing one thing: Get more faculty to spend more time in the classroom. This would also reduce taxpayer liability to support the public university by getting more productivity out of university faculty, many of whom make near $250,000 apiece in salary plus benefits.

The Center for College Affordability and Productivity conducted the study titled “Faculty Productivity and Costs at The University of Texas at Austin.” The study assesses faculty productivity at UT-Austin in terms of both research and teaching by delving into the data on faculty compensation, teaching loads and external research grant awards released by the University of Texas system.

“Our analysis shows that there is clearly room for improvement in terms of faculty productivity at UT Austin,” said Dr. Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a co-author of the study.  “Simply by having faculty teach more students or courses, students and taxpayers will benefit significantly by reduced university costs.”

Dr. Vedder says the findings are preliminary, but revealing:

  • 20 percent of UT Austin faculty are teaching 57 percent of student credit hours.  They also generate 18 percent of the campus’s research funding.  This suggests that these faculty are not jeopardizing their status as researchers by assuming such a high level of teaching responsibility.
  • Conversely, the least productive 20 percent of faculty teach only 2 percent of all student credit hours and generate a disproportionately smaller percentage of external research funding than do other segments of the faculty.
  • Research grant funds go almost entirely (99.8 percent) to a small minority (20 percent) of the faculty; only 2 percent of the faculty conduct 57 percent of funded research.
  • Non-tenured track faculty teach a majority of undergraduate enrollments and a surprising 31 percent of graduate enrollments.
  • The most active researchers teach nearly the average of all faculty; increasing teaching loads of others would trivially impact outside research support.

Dr. Vedder’s report comes as Texas Gov. Rick Perry has called for the state’s public university system to create a $10,000 degree, a reform that Vedder described as “very doable.”  He stressed that the $10k degree is attainable only if university faculty behave as professionals do in other fields; in other words, not limiting themselves to working in fields that merely interest them, but can also provide some benefit to students. “Publish or perish” could become the career path of the past, replaced by a stronger emphasis on time spent in the classroom.

Dr. Vedder spoke to bloggers about the study on a conference call today, organized by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, of which Dr. Vedder is a senior fellow.

Update: Here is a link to the full study.