ATLANTA -- Everyone knows there's a reason the most expensive colleges in the country -- generally private residential institutions -- charge so much. The money they spend on hiring the best faculty members (full-timers of course) and on keeping student-faculty ratios low results in a higher-quality education. Right?
The crowd gathered here for a standing-room-only session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities certainly wanted to believe. From a show of hands at the start of the session, the vast majority of attendees were administrators at those institutions. And the researchers who presented new data on the economics of liberal arts education threw cold water all over that conventional wisdom.
Research presented here by researchers from Wabash College -- and based on national data sets -- finds that there may be a minimal relationship between what colleges spend on education and the quality of the education students receive. Further, the research suggests that colleges that spend a fraction of what others do, and operate with much higher student-faculty ratios and greater use of part-time faculty members, may be succeeding educationally as well as their better-financed (and more prestigious) counterparts.
The research did not rule out some impact from higher spending at some institutions, but suggested that, in many cases, the gains are small -- and the costs (in higher tuition) are large. Charles Blaich, one of the researchers and director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College and the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium, said that the study raised the question of whether those who attend a regional public master's university might be getting 90 percent of the value of an education at an elite private for 20 percent of the cost. And that, he said, could lead to a lot of very difficult questions for those trying to persuade prospective students and their families to spend $50,000 or more a year for an undergraduate degree.
The research goes like this:
The Wabash National Study (also done by the center Blaich leads) tracks 45 colleges and universities, most of them liberal arts colleges, but also other kinds of institutions. The study is designed to identify measures of good practice that result in students at all educational levels learning more. Four such practices (for which there are scales) are "good teaching with high quality interactions with faculty," high expectations and academic challenge, interaction with ideas and people different from one's own, and "deep learning" through characteristics identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement.
For the new study, the 45 colleges were examined based on their spending on educational purposes while also looking at their scores on the measures that are correlated with increased student learning.
The result was that there was only a very small relationship between spending on education and the quality of the educational experience as measured by those four factors. The relationship is so small that Blaich said that a college would have to spend an additional $5 million per 1,000 students to increase the "good practice" score (on a scale of 100) by a single point.
But the finding that really caused visible discomfort in the room was a scatterplot Blaich shared showing the colleges on axes of educational spending per student and points on the scale of good teaching. Blaich isolated 10 colleges (he said later that most but not all were liberal arts colleges) that had very similar scores on the good practices related to teaching. Their spending per student, however, ranged from $9,225 to $53,521 (with corresponding tuition rates). Others at the high end of per-student spending were at $44,429 and $34,172. Three other colleges, however, were achieving the same educational impact with spending per student of about $15,000. And yet all of these colleges were showing similar levels of good practice with regard to education.
Most of those listening -- with growing discomfort -- were private college administrators. But faculty members might not have been comfortable either. Slides by Blaich suggested that spending on faculty members is where the differences exist between the colleges at the low and high ends of the spending spectrum among those 10 institutions.
Average faculty salaries ranged from the $50,000s to the $90,000s. The percentage of the faculty that was employed full-time ranged from 40 percent to 87 percent. Student-faculty ratios ranged from 21:1 to 8:1. And yet all of these institutions were reporting similar scores on the educationally valuable practices.
Audience questions seemed to express concern about the findings. One person asked if the data said anything about faculty morale at the institutions that paid more, and the possible impact on the student experience. In not-for-attribution comments after the session, several senior administrators at colleges said that the data made sense to them, but that they would face widespread faculty criticism if they proposed saving money by increasing courseloads. Others said that as they were listening to the presentation, they thought that the more expensive institutions were simply charging more for prestige -- and that everyone knew that but didn't want to say that in public.
Aside from the question about faculty morale, no one in the full room defended the idea of low courseloads.
Blaich said that he wasn't saying his criteria were perfect, but he said that they showed the colleges could achieve similar educational gains without the low courseloads favored by the most elite institutions.
"I know of a college with a 4-1-4 teaching load and lots of part-timers with lots of good scores on everything," he said. (A study last year -- based only on three private colleges -- reached similar conclusions.)
He also said that he wasn't suggesting that every college replace full-timers with part-timers and add courses to each faculty member's duties. But he said that his data suggest that the quality of instruction from part-timers can be just as high as from full-timers, so maybe the issue is finding the best way to hire and retain them. (He suggested full-year contracts over course-by-course.)
When data show that some colleges rely on those off the tenure track "we all hush because we think it corresponds with poor teaching, but it doesn't," he said.
Right now, many private colleges market themselves based on low student-faculty ratios. Asked if he thought colleges that let those ratios grow to cut costs could be hurt, Blaich said that this could "undercut their brand." But he added that "we have to figure out how to do high touch education in a way that is really more cost-effective."
The session here was at the end of the day, and by the end of the panel, Blaich quipped that he thought many in the room wanted to go out and get a drink.