Are Professors 'Selling Students Short'?

March 21, 2013

Colleges and universities could educate more students or cut costs considerably if they asked professors to teach more courses, says a report issued Wednesday by Education Sector and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The report uses information from Education Department surveys on the teaching loads of tenured and tenure-track faculty members to argue that there has been a serious erosion in the average number of courses taught by faculty members. "From 1987-1988 to 2003-2004, the average number of courses tenured and tenure-track faculty taught per term ... declined 25 percent. It is hard to overstate how dramatic this decline has been. For example, liberal arts colleges tend to specialize in teaching, and yet professors at liberal arts colleges taught less in 2003-2004 than professors at research universities did in 1987-1988," the report says. "All of this matters because low teaching loads are extremely costly. At four-year universities, the decline in teaching loads has increased costs by $2,598 per student."

The report notes limitations on the data, particularly that this particular survey has not been conducted since 2003-4.

Faculty leaders questioned the findings and methodology. Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, noted that the report starts by stating that faculty salaries often make up a majority of college budgets. He noted Education Department data showing that faculty salaries make up less than 30 percent of costs at community colleges, and less than 20 percent at four-year colleges. Fichtenbaum said that the calculations of student savings were thus based on a false assumption about the role of faculty salaries in college budgets. Further, he noted that the salaries of full-time faculty members have been declining as a share of all instructional expenses.

Craig Smith of the American Federation of Teachers said via e-mail that the report "uses outdated data and a simplistic argument to blame faculty for the rising cost of college." Smith noted that colleges have shifted more and more instruction to non-tenure-track faculty members, who tend to be paid only for teaching and on a course-by-course basis. "This report appears to willfully ignore the increasing reliance on underpaid and under-supported contingent faculty and the resulting increased demands on the shrinking number of tenure-track faculty to handle responsibilities outside of the classroom," he said.


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