Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Faculty “Cost per Enrolled Student” Varies Widely

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the "cost per enrolled student."

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the “cost per enrolled student.” Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities.”

More fascinating data from “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” co-authored by University of Virginia economics professor Sarah Turner….

Best paid fields. A key finding of her research is that average faculty salaries vary widely from department to department, depending upon supply and demand considerations specific to each field. Disciplines in which Ph.D.s are employed outside of academia tend to fare better than those with more restricted options. Also, departments that generate outside research dollars pay more as universities engage in bidding wars to recruit star faculty.

Consequently, at UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences fields, computer science and economics professors tend to earn a lot more than English, history and philosophy professors. As a history major, I’m disappointed, but there’s no surprise here. We’re seeing market forces at work.

Cost per enrolled student. Turner and  co-author Paul N. Courant then calculated the faculty cost per enrolled student for each of ten departments. They saw two main variables at work here: (1) how much faculty members are paid, and (2) how many students they teach. As noted in the previous blog post, the more highly a professor is paid, the fewer students he or she is likely to teach.

I must confess that I have long thought that the “hard” sciences were more expensive to teach — their faculty were more likely to engage in research and teach less. But that’s not the case at all. A critical variable I had overlooked is how writing-intensive a course is. Fields like English, history and philosophy require a lot of discussion and writing, and the tasks of teaching and grading students are extremely time-intensive. By necessity, their class sizes are smaller.

By contrast, other disciplines have courses that better lend themselves to lecture-hall teaching, and their answers have more clear right/wrong answers that are easily graded. Faculty can teach larger classes without a diminution in quality.

Thus, we find that teaching English (the most expensive discipline) entails more than three times the faculty cost per student than computer science (the least expensive).

Bacon’s bottom line: It is ironic that it takes two economics professors to generate these numbers. This is precisely the kind of analysis that universities should be undertaking themselves — for every academic department. If we think of English degrees, philosophy degrees, chemistry degrees, computer-science degrees and the like as different product lines, universities should know exactly how much (1) each degree costs to deliver, (2) how much each degree generates in revenue, and (3) how much each degree generates in surplus revenue (or operating profit).

Now, I’m not saying that we should start cutting the English department just because it is “losing” money. Perhaps English writing and reading comprehension is a foundational skill that justifies maintaining writing & critical thinking courses regardless of cost. (There may be less justification for poetry, Medieval literature and post-modern literary criticism.) But when it comes to reallocating resources within a university, administrators and department heads should know at a minimum whether different departments and programs within those departments are money sinks or money generators.

Do universities ask these kinds of questions? Highly dubious. Turner and Courant would not have felt compelled to do their research had UVa and University of Michigan administrations conducted the analysis themselves. The lack of such analytical rigor and the ignorance of underlying costs, I would suggest, is a huge contributor to the rising cost of tuition. How is intelligent cost control even possible? When it comes to university administrations, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance contributes to runaway tuition, student over-indebtedness and the degradation of living standards for an entire generation.

Faculty Productivity Paradox: Get Paid More, Teach Less

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid, the less they teach.

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid at UVa and the University of Michigan, the less they teach. Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities. (“Click for larger image.)

Newly published research by Sarah Turner at the University of Virginia and Paul N. Courant at the University of Michigan sheds light on a critical factor driving the cost of attendance at public universities: faculty productivity.

Turner’s and Courant’s findings buttress a point we have made repeatedly on this blog: that higher-paid faculty members spend more time on research and teach fewer students than lesser-paid faculty members. Depending upon the academic department, a $50,000 increase in salary results in 5% to 30% fewer students taught (as seen in the chart above).

The analysis is restricted to tenure-track faculty. It does not compare the teaching loads to non-tenure-track “instructors” who get paid less and take on even heavier teaching loads than the professors.

Sara E. Turner

In a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” Turner and Courant ask if faculty  members are deployed efficiently at research universities. They base their findings on an in-depth analysis of the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, which are consistently ranked among the top public research universities in the country.

The authors conclude that UVa and Michigan are indeed “efficient” in the sense that they are economically rational in allocating faculty time and effort.

Tenure track faculty in research universities teach and they do research. Over the past several decades, the relative prices — in terms of wages paid to faculty — of those two activities have changed markedly. The price of research has gone up way more than the price of teaching. Salaries have risen more more in elite research institutions than in universities generally. …

Departments in research universities … must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also in teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses. The university pays these faculty well because they are especially good at research. It makes perfect sense that they would also have relatively low teaching loads (along with relatively higher research expectations) …

If we accept that the value placed on research in elite research universit[ies] is warranted, we conclude that the deployment of faculty is generally consistent with rational behavior on the part of those universities. Faculty salaries vary, for a variety of reasons, and the universities respond to that variation by economizing on the most expensive faculty….

Bacon’s bottom line. Note the caveat above: “If we accept that the value placed on research at elite research universities is warranted…” This goes to the heart of the debate over college affordability. UVa and other Virginia universities place an extremely high value on research. Why? Because the publication of research has an outsized effect on a university’s prestige, and the research dollars brought in enables departments to employ more faculty and graduate students, also markers of departmental prestige. By contrast, the cost of attendance is incidental to departmental interests.

Students and parents have a different perspective. While an institution’s prestige is clearly a factor in deciding where to attend college, the cost of attendance typically is a central concern as well.

In sum, universities can emphasize faculty productivity in research or in teaching. As the Turner/Courant data confirms, the system pays the most to the faculty members who teach the least. While the authors don’t go the extra step and say so, it seems clear to anyone outside of academe that undergraduate students are paying ever-higher tuition for the privilege of being taught increasingly by junior professors and instructors so tenured faculty can spend more time on writing and research.

How Higher Ed Is Failing Faculty and Students

by Reed Fawell III

Higher education is corrupt. Each year the rot degrades the system’s ability to educate our kids. The problem is not criminal activity, malfeasance, or bad intentions. Rather, the system is losing focus on its core mission.

Last month I suggested on this blog that higher education needs a total overhaul, especially in elite undergraduate institutions. Here, and in posts to follow, I will explain why this overhaul is critically needed.

My intent is not to blame particular individuals, groups or institutions, but to highlight how a once-great system of elite higher education is failing its students and undermining all that it touches. The ramifications extend to students, parents, faculty and administrators, as well as the outside interests (public and private) that feed off the system or unduly influence it.

Even as the sector grows into a massive commercial enterprise accounting for an ever-larger share of the nation’s economy, the capacity of higher ed to fulfill its historic mission of educating undergraduate students is crumbling. Nowhere is the problem more evident than at the nation’s foremost colleges and universities once led the world in teaching liberal arts, sciences and humanities upon which Western Civilization depends.

While the threat is real, there are heroes in this story. A dwindling minority of students, faculty, and administrators fight the debilitating system every day. Too often, though, they labor at great cost to themselves and their careers. Their battles usually take place outside the public view. Yet more of them are going public, describing their struggles in books and articles. Even a few institutions are fighting the tide by focusing sharply on the mission to educating their students in an efficient, cost-effective way.

But we are losing ground overall. All too often the career and work of Col. John Boyd, a preeminent military strategist, theorist and educator in last decades of the 20th century, typifies how today’s real “educators” wage lonely, uphill battles. Boyd wrote how those caught in dysfunctional institutions are forced to do “counter productive work” instead of the real and transformation work. Higher education needs far more John Boyds. (See Robert Coram’s biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.)

Each year teaching and learning get harder. Leadership failures and destructive cultural forces are overwhelming undergraduate programs at an alarming pace. Higher education inflicts pervasive, long-lasting, and often devastating harm upon many of its undergraduate students. As the corruption spreads into families and communities, it poisons everyone’s future. Elite institutions, which educate a disproportionate share of the nation’s leaders, can most do the most harm.

William Deresiewicz’s 2014 book, “Excellent Sheep, the Mis-education of the American Elite,” tells of “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation” experienced by large and growing numbers of undergraduates at elite schools. He describes how undergraduates are too often the left overs from “stressed out, over-pressured high school student(s)” that elite institutions now demand.

The American Psychological Association summarized a recent survey under the headline The Crisis on Campus: “Nearly half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness while almost a third spoke of feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past twelve months.”

Excellent Sheep also reports that college counseling services are being overwhelmed. Nearly of half of students seeking help now suffer from “severe psychological problems,” triple the number two decades ago. A Stanford Provost who convened a task force on student mental health in 2006 wrote: “Increasingly we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behaviors.” A college president wrote: “We appear to have an epidemic of depression among young people.”

Many pathologies arise in high school among students striving to meet the admission requirements of elite colleges.  Many are overwhelmed when they get there. Many never recover. Said one student: “For many students, rising to the top means being consumed by the system.”

Why? Why is the mental, emotional, and physical health of so many of America’s elite students in apparent collapse? Why is this phenomenon so under-reported?

Professors and instructors tasked to mentor these undergraduates in college often suffer the same maladies as their students. Evidence mounts that today’s higher education system inflicts emotional, professional and financial harm, and related injustices, upon the tenured and non-tenured faculty teaching at America’s most prestigious institutions. Here, too, we find toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness and isolation, particularly among those most vulnerable: the graduate and post graduate instructors, non-tenured track professors, and younger professors seeking tenure.

When those who do the bulk of teaching and mentoring of undergraduate students experience undue stress, dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive behavior, hysteria, and depression, something is terribly wrong. The next few articles will delve into the central drivers of this dysfunction within America’s elite educational system and how they combine with cultural forces to threaten to collapse not only our elite undergraduate education but our society that depends on well educated citizens.

Tommy Norment: W&M’s Man in the State Senate

Sen. Tommy Norment appears with former William & Mary President Gene Nichol.

In this 2007 photo, Sen. Tommy Norment appears with former William & Mary President Gene Nichol. Nichol presented him with the Prentis Award for civic involvement benefiting the college and community. Said Nichol: “Our College—like our community and our Commonwealth—is beyond fortunate to have Tommy Norment in our corner. William and Mary couldn’t ask for a more devoted advocate in Richmond.”

Does Sen. Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, have a conflict of interest regarding legislation affecting William & Mary?

Like many Virginia lawmakers, the Senate Majority Leader attended two Virginia institutions of higher education – the Virginia Military Institute and the College of William & Mary school of law. Unlike his colleagues, he is employed by a Virginia university. He works as an adjunct professor at William & Mary, which pays him $60,000 a year. That’s on top of his $50,000-a-year state senator’s salary and earnings from his private law practice with Kaufman & Canoles.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax County, objected when a half-dozen tuition-reform bills he and other senators sponsored were routed from the Senate higher education subcommittee to the Senate Finance Committee, where they have died. Norment is co-chair of the Finance Committee.

“That’s an obvious conflict of interest if you have someone who’s an employee of an institution who is going to sit in judgment on all these tuition bills,” Petersen said, reports Karin Kapsidelis with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Norment did not return Kapsidelis’ phone call asking for a response.

Concerns about Norment’s ties to W&M have dogged both the university and him for years. Eight years ago, W&M President Taylor Reveley justified having Norment on the payroll this way:

Before Senator Norment joined us, we had only one full-time Coordinator of Legal Affairs and one part-time Assistant to the Provost for Legal Affairs (focusing on disciplinary matters). We have badly needed more inside legal help.

The work Senator Norment does as a William & Mary employee is substantive and demanding. His employment here is not a Potemkin village. His work involves both teaching and legal advice. His teaching has been extensive and successful. From the beginning of his time at William & Mary, the Senator has provided me with legal counsel. He continues to do so while also now working closely with our Coordinator of Legal Affairs.

Tommy Norment’s compensation reflects his status as an experienced lawyer coming from private practice. It is less than would be expected for someone of his seniority and ability in private practice or the corporate world. It makes sense for a university, however, and is consistent with how we compensate our other lawyers.

No “quid pro quo” was involved in Senator Norment’s and my conversations about the possibility of his joining William & Mary. The Senator did not offer to do anything for William & Mary in return for employment. Nor did I premise the possibility of his employment here on his doing anything for the university in the future.

No quid pro quo was necessary. Norment was an advocate for W&M before he went on the payroll, and he no doubt will continue to be when he leaves. And, to be fair, Norment is not the only powerful senator opposing tuition reform. Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, the senate minority leader, supported diverting the reform bills to Senate Finance.

When Petersen asked why a higher-ed bill was assigned to the finance committee, Saslaw responded, “It’s going to Finance when you start messing around with out-of-state numbers.” Presumably he was referring to caps on the number of out-of-state students at UVa and W&M. The General Assembly did not need to “micro-manage” the universities, Saslaw added.

(For details on the bills, see “Virginia Higher Ed Faces Backlash.”)

Bacon’s bottom line: How deep do the ties between a legislator and university have to run before it becomes a objectionable conflict of interest? Let me set the stage by asking some hypothetical questions:

• What if an Altria employee served in the state senate and voted against a higher tobacco tax? Would there be any question at all? It would be universally regarded as a conflict of interest.

• What if a Dominion Virginia Power employee served in the state senate and approved a measure that would increase electric rates? Clearly a conflict of interest. Del. Peter Farrell, R-Henrico, has abstained from voting on Dominion-related legislation on the grounds that his father was CEO of Dominion.

• What if the provost of W&M served in the state senate and deep-sixed measures designed to curb tuition increases? Clearly a conflict of interest.

• What if a tenured faculty member of W&M served in the state senate and deep-sixed measures designed to curb tuition increases? Still a conflict of interest.

The whole thing smells fishy to me.

Replacing Foreman Field: Another Student Rip-Off?

ODU wants to replace Foreman Field. Who pays -- the students or the football fans? Take a guess.

ODU wants to replace Foreman Field. Who pays — the students or the football fans? Take a guess.

Old Dominion University wants to tear down its old football stadium, Foreman Field, and build a $55 million facility in its place. The university says it can pay for the project without raising student fees, traditionally a major source of funding for athletic programs.

If all goes according to plan, reports the Virginian-Pilot, the east and west sides would be demolished immediately after the 2018 season and rebuilt in time for the ODU Monarchs to play Norfolk State in August 2018. ODU requires General Assembly approval for the project, which appears to be forthcoming. “They have come to Richmond and made a good case,” said state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach. “It’s fiscally prudent. Everything appears to be a go.”

The new 22,000-seat stadium will hold only 2,000 more spectators than Foreman Field, but it would offer better seats and bathrooms. The stadium could be expanded to 30,000 seats if ticket demand calls for it. A second phase would include a $39.5 million tower containing luxury suites, a stadium club, new press facilities and a new scoreboard, but funding sources have not yet been identified.

“I’ve maintained from day one that this is a proposal we can afford. It does not require any new student fees to pay for it,” said ODU President John Broderick. “In this time of well-deserved scrutiny on the cost of higher education, that was an important part of the decision I made on the scope and cost of the project.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The project may be fiscally prudent in that it does not require an increase in fees, which now stand at $3,076 per year. Almost $1,700 of that sum is classified as athletic fees. But two questions arise: First, are students getting good value for their fees; second, is ODU missing an opportunity to lower fees?

Let’s examine the economics of ODU football stadiums. As a benefit of paying fees, students get free tickets. What’s the value of those tickets? That’s hard to say exactly. Prices vary by seating, with the best seats costing more. But we can use the $199 price tag for new season tickets as a starting point. We’re not far off by assuming that a student’s annual fees entitles him or her to football tickets worth about $200 — assuming he or she attends every game.

But ODU has nearly 25,000 students. Currently, ODU allocates tickets to roughly 6,500 students, according to the Virginian-Pilot. Let’s assume that ODU bumps up the number of student tickets to 7,500 with the new stadium (allocating half to students, half to season ticket holders). That means fewer than one in three ODU students will have an opportunity to attend any given home game. Effectively, that means the value of “free tickets” to ODU students collectively has a market value of about $70.

When ODU calculates its student fees, how much does it charge students for “free” tickets? Is some portion of the fees allocated to supporting the football team and another portion allocated to paying for the stadium? Alternatively, are students charged a portion for the supporting the football program and the stadium as a package? Or does ODU even break out the numbers that way?

I called ODU’s press office yesterday afternoon and asked for numbers on how the administration plans to pay for the new stadium without increasing student fees. I have not yet heard back, but will report what I find out.

All we know at this point is what Broderick tells us: that no new student fees will be required to pay for the stadium. One of two possibilities seems likely: Either the university has cut expenses (renegotiating a contract, for instance) or it is cutting a program or programs previously funded through student fees. In either case, the opportunity existed for the university to reduce the fees instead of build a $55 million stadium. The university chose to build the stadium.

How much money are we talking about? Let’s say that the stadium will be constructed with bonds. Assuming a 30-year amortization and tax-free interest charges of 4% annually on those bonds, that works out to about $2.8 million a year. That averages about $120 per student.

If these numbers are in the ballpark, ODU students will be paying $120 per year to help finance a stadium and receive a $70 value in the form of  football tickets in return. In other words, ODU students and their parents are subsidizing construction of the stadium to the tune of $50 per year for the benefit of season ticket holders.

Who are those season ticket holders? Many of them are alumni. Some may be Norfolk-area residents who identify with ODU and love a good football game. Whatever the case, football is a great way to extract money from fans.

As the Pilot reported in January, The Old Dominion Athletic Foundation has 3,000 paying members.

Essentially, all 3,000 paying members of the Old Dominion Athletic Foundation – the school’s private athletic fundraising organization – are ranked on a number of factors. They include how much money they’ve donated, how long they’ve had season tickets and how long they’ve been members of ODAF.

Based on this ranking, 1 through 3,000, fans are allowed to choose their new seats. The reallocation of seats, or “re-seating process” as ODU calls it, happens every [four years] four at Foreman Field. …

If fans increase how much they donate, it’s an opportunity to get better seats. And if they don’t, there’s angst because they’ll likely end up sitting a little farther from the action.

ODU last reallocated seats at Foreman Field in 2013, as the school began the transition into the Football Bowl Subdivision. The process proved to be a financial boon, with ODU raking in $1.5 million more in donations in the first quarter of 2013 than it did in 2012. Much of that increase was derived from fans trying to get better seats.

“I suspect that we’ll see an increase in donations this year as well,” athletic director Wood Selig said.

In other words, ODU will over-charge students in the neighborhood of $50 each, for an annual total of $1,250,000, to subsidize a football program that netted the university $1.5 million in alumni/fan donations in just one quarter. That’s what it’s all about, folks. If ODU plays its cards right, a new stadium will raise even bigger donations for administrators to play with. When will students figure out what’s going on?.


Who Would Have Guessed It? Virginians Want Lower College Tuitions.

Graphic source: VCU. (Click for larger, more legible image.)

One more result from VCU’s Commonwealth Education Poll… The pollsters asked an interesting question. If a public university has funds donated by alumni or philanthropists — we’re talking private money here, not public — should the institution use it to reduce tuition & fees, expand facilities or hire more faculty? Hands-down winner: make college more affordable.

Four out of five parents of a Virginia college student said they wanted reduced tuition & fees. Although VCU asked a different question than Partners 4 Affordable Excellence did in its recent poll, the results are consistent.

Higher ed affordability may not be the biggest issue in the minds of the electorate — Virginians are more concerned about jobs and K-12 — but it is potent nonetheless. Consider that parents of college students and prospective college students tend to be better educated and earn higher incomes, which means they tend to vote in greater numbers than the average Virginian. That’s a powerful voting bloc. Gubernatorial candidates would do well to target this demographic.

My main fear is that politicians will advocate simplistic solutions that will wreak havoc on Virginia’s higher ed system, which, for all its flaws, does a pretty good job. I see higher-ed reform as akin to brain surgery — highly invasive but requiring a delicate hand.

UVa Professors Working Harder than You Think

 UVa professors do a lot more work than shows up on the Internet.

Siva Vaidhyanathan: UVa professors do a lot more work than shows up on the Internet. Photo credit: C-VILLE Weekly.

A few days ago, I delivered a rap on the knuckles to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. He had made what I found to be a remarkable statement in a radio interview: “The university systems throughout the state of Virginia are running lean. They’re serving students very well.” Really? Universities that had hiked tuitions 75% over the past decade were “running lean?”

In that post, I observed that UVa’s media studies department of 24 professors and lecturers was offering only 39 courses, and that lecturers had much bigger teaching loads than the professors. Moreover, I noted, Vaidhyanathan himself is not teaching a course this semester, offering the possibility that he was on sabbatical. What does that say about faculty productivity? It looked like UVa was paying big money — Vaidhyanathan $253,000 in 2014 — to spend time on research and writing instead of teaching.

Well, Vaidhyanathan saw the blog post and reached out. We had a friendly chat Monday. He credited me with asking “trenchant”  questions, but said there was more to the story that what I had conveyed in my blog post. In the spirit of exploring all sides of the higher education controversy, I summarize here what he had to say.

The reason he’s not teaching any classes this semester, Vaidhyanathan said, is that he is one of twelve faculty members selected by the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to redesign the curricula. He has been involved full-time delving into the scholarship of teaching and in the design of new courses.

The College of Arts and Sciences requires students to take a minimum number of courses in math and natural sciences, the social sciences, history, non-Western perspectives, and humanities. Often, students take a checklist approach to areas outside their major, often gravitating to easy courses or professors and not getting much out of the experience.

A few years ago, he says, UVa professors began asking whether the process was really beneficial to students or just an exercise in catalog shopping. “We want students to understand the thought in all these areas, learn how scientists think, understand what the debates are in the humanities,” Vaidhyanathan said. “Can we restructure at least the first-year experience to give students a better tour of the modes of thought?”

Faculty members do more than teach courses, by the way. They advise students. “Even though I’m not teaching any courses this semester,” he said, I meet with two students who are writing theses. I’m meeting with a student doing independent study. We do all these extra things. Not to mention what we do with graduate students.”

Moreover, regarding the faculty-course ratios I mentioned in my blog post, he noted that four media studies faculty members are on research leave, paid by other universities to visit them. The average course load per professor is higher than my numbers indicated.

From what he has seen in academia, including teaching at two other universities, UVa places a high priority on teaching, Vaidhyanathan said. “Just last Wednesday, I sat through three of an assistant professor’s courses watching her teach and taking detailed notes. There’s a constant conversation on how to improve, how to try new technologies. There’s an ongoing debate on whether to use PowerPoint.”

When he taught at New York University, Vaidhyanathan was warned by his departmental chair not to place too much emphasis on teaching. The attitude there was that getting recognized as a good teacher before earning tenure marked a professor as someone who was giving insufficient attention to research. The attitude at UVa is different, he said. He sees scholarship and teaching buttressing one another. Staying on the cutting edge of one’s field makes one a better teacher; interacting with students gives perspective to the scholarship.

As astonishing as it may seem to some, Vaidhyanathan says he sees his job as a public service. He frequently asks himself, “Am I doing right by the taxpayers? Am I doing right by the students who are paying tuition?”

The best day of the year for him is graduation day, he says. “All the parents and students applaud us. I’ve never worked anywhere where that’s the case. They appreciate the work we do. It makes me feel really good.”

While he praises UVa, Vaidhyanathan concedes that it is a work in progress. He says that the institution had been “self-satisfied” for too long. “We’re no longer happy with just being listed in the Top Five public universities. That’s not really success.” UVa has had a shift in the conversation. “It’s not just about scoring well. Can we make a difference in childhood diabetes? Can we make a difference in big data research? Can we leverage our strengths to be one of the leaders?”

For too long, he said, UVa did not think strategically. That’s changing. “We’re hiring amazing young faculty members. We’re better connected to the needs of the Commonwealth than we’ve been in a long time.”

“Running Lean” at the University of Virginia

Siva Vaidhyanathan: defender of Virginia's higher ed status quo

Siva Vaidhyanathan: defender of  Virginia’s higher ed status quo

Once upon a time, the credo of American journalism was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Today, the attitude of many reporters is quite the reverse: Defend the institutional status quo against Tea Partiers, Trumpkins, rabble-rousers and other yahoos. The bias is especially evident in coverage of that most elite and privileged of establishment institutions, higher ed.

Sandy Hausman, a reporter for public radio station WVTF in Roanoke, broadcast a story recently about the effort by Helen Dragas, a former rector of the University of Virginia and board chair of Partners 4 Affordable Excellence, to make Virginia universities more accountable for skyrocketing tuition. (Full disclosure: Her organization sponsors this blog.)

Staking out a populist position on higher education, Dragas is speaking for millions of Virginia students and parents, present and future, who are paying, or will pay, unprecedented sums for a college education. As Partners 4 Excellence has noted, parents are spending 74% more to send their kids to college than they did 10 years ago. And there is no sign that the increases are slowing down.

But rather than explore the causes driving the runaway Cost of Attendance at Virginia colleges and universities, Hausman used the piece to debunk Dragas. She devoted much of the story to the remarks of Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Virginia media studies professor — hardly an unbiased source.

You can listen to Vaidhyanathan yourself. Suffice it to say that his observations, though not entirely without merit, were debatable. Parsing each sentence would be an exercise too tedious to engage in here. But one comment galled me.  “The university systems throughout the state of Virginia are running lean,” he said. “They’re serving students very well.”

That’s priceless coming from a professor in UVa’s media studies department. That department lists 15 professors and nine lecturers on staff. Between them, the 24 faculty members are teaching a total of 39 courses this semester. What’s particularly interesting is how the course load is distributed between professors and lecturers. The less prestigious (and presumably less well compensated) lecturers are teaching 19 courses, or an average of 2.1 courses each. The professors are teaching 20, an average of 1.3 classes each.

Ironically, Vaidhyanathan is not listed as teaching a single course this semester. Perhaps he is on sabbatical, I don’t know. He is also listed as the “Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies,” which suggests that he sits in an endowed chair that supplements his state salary. His total gross pay, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch state salary database, was $253,000 in 2014. In other words, Vaidhyanathan is paid a salary worthy of the “1%,” not for carrying a heavy teaching load and “serving the students well” but for getting published.

He has written four books. His most recent, published in 2011, was “The Googlization of Everything And Why We Should Worry.” Judging by its blurb, the book actually looks pretty timely and relevant. For purposes of argument, let us grant the proposition that Vaidhyanathan is a brilliant intellect who brings credit to UVa. His employment and that of his media colleagues still is not what anyone could call “running lean.”

In examining the affordability higher ed institutions such as the University of Virginia, one of the many questions we must ask ourselves is this: Is faculty productivity improving or declining? As UVa seeks to recruit more star faculty who bring renown to the institution, what terms and conditions does it grant these superstars? How much time are they asked to teach? To how many professors is UVa paying top-drawer salaries for teaching two or three small-enrollment courses a year and spending the rest of their time writing articles and books?

It goes without saying that Vaidhyanathan and others like him would prefer to blame skyrocketing tuition on cutbacks in state aid to higher ed. The General Assembly has cut back and it does deserve a share of the blame. But reductions in state aid account for only half the increase in tuition, and only a fifth of the total cost of attendance when fees, room, board and other expenses are thrown in.

How many administrators does UVa employ, and what are they paid? How many faculty does UVa employ, and how are they compensated? How much does the institution spend on sports programs? How much on marketing to students with the goal of inflating applications and looking exclusive? How much has the competition for out-of-state students with high SAT scores led the university to upgrade dormitories, dining facilities, gymnasiums, and recreational facilities? There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer to any of these questions, but they are all worth asking. Too bad Virginia journalists aren’t interested.

Time to Disinvest in Higher Education?

Richard Vedder: heretic

Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, suggests that the United States might be overinvested in higher education. We might be spending billions of dollars as a society on activity of marginal value.

Arguably, one of the most important functions of higher education in America is signalling to employers that a given individual is intelligent, industrious, and otherwise employable. Many students learn few job-relevant skills in college, Vedder writes in Forbes. As an alternative to spending four years in college, he suggests giving students tests certifying to skills and competencies demanded by employers.

Government subsidies and private philanthropy have prevented a healthy disinvestment in higher education from occurring,” he says. “Few colleges ever fail. … America could use the failure of at least 500 colleges over the next decade to assist in needed resource allocation.”

“If we were to spend, say, one-third less than we do on colleges,” Vedder writes, “we would lose relatively little output from declining labor productivity, and if those savings were invested in other productive ways, we likely on balance would be materially ahead of where we are today.”

(Hat tip: Dwayne Lunsford.)

Bacon’s bottom line: If Americans want to enjoy college as a luxury good — going to frat parties, cheering at football games, participating in late-night dormitory bull sessions, taking classes on obscure topics that will do them absolutely no good in the real world — and if parents want to pay for that activity, well, it’s a free country. People can do what they like.

But should public policy be blindly subsidizing millions of Americans to partake of the residential campus experience? What is the justification for state and federal government subsidies for higher education, if not to prepare Americans to participate in the workplace? There is a compelling public interest creating economic opportunity for all. There is no compelling public interest in immersing students in 18th-century English novels or the tenets of Tibetan religion.

Should Lawmakers Cap College Tuition Increases?

Now for something totally different — the first poll in the 14-year history of Bacon’s Rebellion!

I would say that I offer this poll in response to popular demand, but that would be misleading. No one but Bacon’s Rebellion‘s skeptic-in-chief, Larry Gross, AKA LarrytheG, has been agitating for polls. Moreover, I know that I will catch unmitigated grief for biasing the results by the way I frame the poll questions, thus creating another set of headaches for myself! But I plunge ahead in the conviction that polls will increase reader engagement. Indeed, I would go one step further and invite readers to compose their own poll questions and responses. I will happily consider them.

Accordingly, I have concocted the following in response to Larry’s challenge in a comment on the previous blog post to address the following topic:

[Total_Soft_Poll id=”2″]

It goes without saying, please vote only once. If I find evidence of cheating, I will have to search for a poll that restricts voters to those who register with the blog, which makes it more laborious for readers to participate, and it means I’ll be spending more time on technology/administrative tasks at which I am incompetent and less time writing blog posts for all the world to enjoy.

Update: I encourage you to elaborate upon the reasons for your vote in the comments section.