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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Yes, Small Class General Education Courses Do Make Money

Non-tenure-track faculty teaching small classes generate lots of tuition revenue and get very little back.

December 18, 2014

It seems to be a common bit of wisdom that small classes with limited enrollments such as first year composition, or other general education courses, are not money makers[1].

We’re told it’s the large lectures, built on the 600-1000 person “sage on a stage” model, that are supporting these smaller undergraduate courses.

While these large lectures may be “profitable[2],” so are the smaller enrollment general education classes at universities that rely on non-tenure-track labor.

I’ve been writing about Arizona State the past couple days, but this is not an Arizona State phenomenon. This is something that is shared at any university that makes significant use of low paid, nontenurable instructors. Given that ¾ of all instructional faculty fit this designation, this is obviously true in many places.

I’m going to use my former employer, Clemson University, as an example, not because I think they’re better or worse than anyone else on this front, but because I’m most familiar with their system[3].

Assumptions behind the calculations[4]:

Clemson, like lots of other universities, charges a flat rate for tuition for any student above 12 hours/semester, so I’ll be assuming that all students are full-time and that the class of students collectively averages 15 hours of coursework per semester.

I’ll be using only the academic fees portion of the posted tuition, as the other charges are earmarked for things other than instruction.

In-state: $6298/semester = $420/credit hour

Out of state: $15,306/semester $1020/credit hour

I’m also going to assume that every class has a 2/3 proportion of in-state students and 1/3 proportion of out of state students, which is reflective of Clemson’s overall enrollment.

I’m going to use current enrollment caps against my salary in 2011 because I don’t know what the current salaries are, and because enrollment caps are somewhat lower, I’m erring against inflating the amount of revenue earned over labor expenses.

My last semester at Clemson, Spring 2011, I taught the following courses, each of them three hours for a total of twelve[5]:

2 sections of English 215 (contemporary literature): These courses look to be capped (for now) at 28 students for the Spring. They were 36 when I was there, so that’s an improvement, which I’m pleased to see.

1 section of English 345 (fiction writing): 19 student cap

1 section of English 312 (advanced composition): 19 student cap

Total number of students: 94 = 63 in-state, 31 out-of-state

In-state credit hour revenue: 63 x 3 = 189 x $402/hr = $75,978

Out-of-state credit hour revenue: 31 x 3 = 93 x $1020/hr = $94,860

Total: $170,388/semester[6]

My salary at Clemson was just over $25,000/year[7].

On a yearly basis, I was responsible for over $340,000 of revenue.

A team of 15 instructors like me (there were many more than this in the department) brings in approximately $5,100,000 of revenue against salary costs of $375,000. Adding in 20% for benefits (which I had, but not everyone did), we get total payroll costs of my little instructional unit of $450,000[8].

That’s labor costs of about 15% relative to revenue, which as best I can tell is pretty outstanding from a business perspective.

Where does the money go? Not to English departments or general education, certainly.

If universities with this profile don’t have enough money, it’s an overhead problem, not a labor problem, certainly not a labor problem in service departments like English, which are tuition cash cows, and yet, time and again it’s the budgets of English departments that get squeezed, and it’s the non-tenure-track laborers whose burdens are increased, as in the case of the recent proposal at Arizona State.

Yes, this is the fault of neglectful legislatures and bloated, corporatist administration and all kinds of other things. Tenured faculty are not to blame for the state of the world, even as I believe that they are uniquely empowered to challenge the status quo.

We all should be banding together to protest, but part of that is to acknowledge the degree to which NTT faculty and graduate student labor is undercompensated, as well as how tenured faculty at large research institutions benefit from this system by retaining limited teaching profiles. That research is being paid for by others in the department.

Let’s at least retire the canard that small, general education classes don’t pay for themselves.


You know what would be fun on Twitter and in the comments? Calculate your own revenue to cost ratio and post it. #amaprofitcenter.



[1] See this comment on a previous post by Arizona State’s Director of Graduate Studies for English in which he declares that the $35,000 of expenses associated with each graduate assistant who teaches three courses a year means those courses aren’t profitable. In reality, those three courses generate over $112,000 in tuition revenue.

[2] I know that I’m not strictly talking about profit, but I’m using the word as a measurement to reflect amount of revenues greater than cost of labor.

[3] I’m not using my current employer because it’s not a research university, the department has a much smaller cadre of NTT faculty and T/TT faculty routinely teach all up and down the undergraduate course ladder, including FYW.

[4] These could be off for a number or reasons, but I think they’re a pretty good estimate.

[5] I should note that my student load was lower than most in my position because of the two writing intensive courses capped at 19. There were other instructors that taught all literature courses, though those were not required to be writing intensive.

[6] Remember that this is a potentially conservative estimate.

[7] My understanding is that it’s better than this now, but not significantly so.

[8] If my unit is made up entirely of adjuncts getting paid 3k/course without benefits (not unusual by any stretch), the labor costs fall to $135,000.


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