Going on a Diet

Among Richard Vedder's 10 ways the economic downturn might change campus behavior: bigger teaching loads, more unionization, a truce in the athletics arms race -- and a slowing in college presidents' pay?

December 30, 2008

For American colleges and universities, the deepening recession means that costs will be rising (because of increased enrollments as unemployed persons return to school to stay gainfully occupied) while revenues will be falling, as state appropriations, private donations, and endowment income shrinks. Political and economic considerations alike will preclude meeting the revenue shortfall exclusively through tuition increases. Colleges must cut costs. The potential severity of the recession means that the magnitude of the cuts is uncertain, but likely to be relatively large.

In such an environment, higher education institutions and their faculty may start to do some unpalatable things previously off the table. Let me list 10 possibilities:

Bigger Teaching Loads. It is a dirty little secret that teaching loads of full-time faculty have been declining for at least a half a century. At medium quality state four-year schools, in 1960 a professor would teach 9 or even 12 courses an academic year; today, the number of classes taught is more likely to be five or six. At research oriented institutions, a similar reduction has occurred, with a rare senior professor at research oriented institutions teaching over four courses annually these days (teaching loads are much higher in community colleges, however). This trend might start to reverse.

The cost per student credit hour of instruction for regular full-time faculty is perhaps an unsustainable multiple of that of adjuncts and graduate students. Related to this is another reality: the majority of non-grant funded research done today to justify low teaching loads leads to publication in third- or fourth-rate academic journals that are little read; the research is indefensible on cost-benefit grounds. Hence, the Journal of Last Resort may start to get fewer submissions as teaching loads start to creep up.

Reduce Support Staff. The number of non-teaching professional staff has doubled in relation to enrollment over the past generation. Universities have added scores of public relations specialists, wellness coordinators, diversity czars, international program administrators, assistant deans, associate provosts, and the like. Some paring of the Bureaucratic Army will become necessary. To cite one example where change could come, consider that we are in an era in which we have elected an African-American president, where Oprah Winfrey is probably our most popular television personality, and in which the last four Secretaries of State were either black or female. Do we really need an army of Affirmative Action Police to monitor the race and gender of job applicants, students or contractors?

Reevaluating Tenure. Tenure has already diminished somewhat in importance as universities resort to hiring cheaper adjuncts or use graduate students more intensively in the classroom. The prospects of several years of dismal funding may prompt more universities to go further, perhaps putting all new appointees, including ones considered potential permanent additions, on term appointments. As the demand for new faculty sharply diminishes, universities will gain the bargaining power to enter into these sorts of arrangements.

Unionization Attempts May Grow. In response to attempts to raise teaching loads and reduce or even end tenure, more faculty members may start to talk about faculty unionization, especially in the public institutions.

Moves to Increase Attainment May Slow. The Spellings Commission, higher education coordinating boards, governors and some academic cheerleaders (Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz’s new book The Race Between Education and Technology comes to mind) have all called on increasing the proportion of adults with college degrees, especially for those in underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. While the rhetoric supporting such moves will probably increase as Barack Obama takes office, the presence of other vast and very expensive problems may hamper the ability to move forward, although attempts will be made to include various financial aid programs for underrepresented students under “economic stimulus.”

Endowment Spending Rules Are Dead. The talk of forcing universities to spend more out of their endowments should end, if any semblance of rationality exists in Washington (to be sure, a tenuous assumption).

Cooling Big Salary Increases for Top Officials. We have entered the era of the million dollar college president (and, of course, the two or three million dollar football coach). The move to rapidly escalate salaries for top leaders will probably temporarily abate a bit, as well publicized increases become politically unsustainable for not-for-profit institutions in an era of high unemployment, stagnant wages, and continually soaring tuition fees.

A Temporary Truce in the Athletic Arms Race. Spending in big time athletic programs have been rising by double digit annual amounts in recent years. It becomes increasingly difficult to justify growing subsidies for ball throwing competitions in an era of joblessness, rising student loan debt, and growing resentment of the easy life of many hedonistic college students;

Slowdown in the Academic Arms Race. It seems the president of every mediocre American college wants buckets of money to allow that institution to get to “the next highest level,” an impossible dream for all but the very few. Financial exigencies will scale such cost drivers as building luxury quasi-country club-like facilities and hiring superstar prima donna professors who teach little but demand a lot. The abatement will be temporary, however, until such time as we find a better means of measuring institutional performance than the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Using Technology to Lower Costs. To this point, new technologies have increased expenses. Colleges will get more serious about capital-labor substitution, using distance learning and related technologies to cut per student instructional costs. Socrates’ approach to teaching may undergo its first fundamental wide scale challenge in 2,400 years.

I could go on, but I have run out of fingers. I have not, for example, mentioned efforts to get serious about having students finish college in a timely fashion, punishing institutions with large numbers of students lingering for five or six years, and rewarding efforts to institute three-year baccalaureate degrees, as in many European countries.

I have stuck my neck out enough for one essay, and have shown, once again, that Thomas Carlyle was right -- economics is the dismal science.


Richard Vedder is the Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.


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