Less Research, More Economies of Scale

That's Joseph T. Johnson's prescription for how to contain undergraduate tuition -- and "rationalize the classroom" -- at public universities.


June 19, 2009

As questions about higher education’s costs and prices have escalated, college leaders have continued to respond in largely the same old ways. In the case of public colleges, they cite as justification that their institutions have been insufficiently compensated by higher legislative appropriations. While that’s true in some cases, that response is hollow. The situation is unlikely to change in the years ahead, because legislators face too many other funding pressures and compelling needs to be able to change the picture in a meaningful way.

When public colleges are told that they, like other recipients of state monies, must increase efficiency and lower costs, they tend to look at personnel only as a last resort. When they do look, any emphasis on economizing is directed at administrative and logistical workers, rather than the faculty, even though faculty salaries and benefits make up 40 percent of the Higher Education Price Index.

Higher education institutions cannot meaningfully alter their cost structures, and therefore deal with the pressure to reduce prices, unless they focus on the core of the university enterprise, namely, the academic duties and procedures of the faculty and deans. Jane Wellman, whose work is sponsored by the Lumina Foundation for Education, may be right that instructional costs haven’t risen as fast as non-instructional college costs; but that doesn’t mean that significant efficiencies can’t be achieved on the instructional side. Even the Lumina Foundation’s data on public colleges and universities indicate that instructional spending accounts for over 40 percent of the cost of educating a student. It is time to reconsider the basic model of faculty responsibilities and remuneration.

Some argue that faculty responsibilities are too labor-intensive to show the same sort of productivity improvements as the non-academic side, but this just takes for granted the existing academic model. It’s like an engineering firm that looks for efficiencies only in the costs of equipment and the payroll of clerical and custodial staffs. What about the engineers? Aren’t there ways to change their functions, reorganize the project teams, and redefine management responsibilities? A better way for public higher education to go would be to rationalize the faculty model by reducing the instructor’s range of responsibilities and allowing him or her to benefit from the resulting concentration and specialization. This means, above all, clearly distinguishing the teaching mission from the research mission. I’ll explain how below.

States can begin the process by reinforcing the division of academic labor between teaching and research. Even when the distinction is already official policy, it tends to be ignored, as faculties seek the approval of their academic peers and define their roles by the norms of their disciplines rather than the policies of their taxpayer employers. The result is too much emphasis on faculty research. Instead, public colleges should assign undergraduate faculty to separate professional categories, based on whether they are primarily teachers or primarily curriculum researchers and developers. They should ensure that academic research by undergraduate teachers is designed primarily to support curriculum development and maintenance. Public colleges should rely less on faculty committees by having full-time administrators handle service functions that are not part of teaching or curriculum development. To achieve economies of scale, these functions should be centralized at the institutional or even the state-system level. This process of classroom rationalization consists of the following specific measures.

1) Eliminate the scholarly activity requirements of most instructors on the undergraduate faculty and assign responsibility for research and developing curricula to a small cadre of professors. There is insufficient evidence linking instructors’ teaching effectiveness to research output. Besides that, research is a labor-intensive function – and an uncertain one. Even on collaborative projects with multiple minds at work, results fit for publication cannot be guaranteed. Faculty research may support teaching when it enables the teacher to keep up with the field and incorporate the latest knowledge into the curriculum. There is no reason, though, for this teacher-supporting research to be done by the instructor him or herself, rather than by the small cadre of professors whose job is to research and develop curricula.

2) Hire faculty according to a clear division of labor. Employ master’s degree-qualified lecturers for most undergraduate teaching. Employ a much smaller number of Ph.D.-qualified professors for teaching advanced undergraduate courses. The professors with doctorates should also be responsible for curriculum design and course development, which means they’re also the ones doing research and keeping up with the field. One long-run effect of this will be a change in the composition of the faculty: fewer Ph.D.s and more master’s degrees. Both lecturers and professors can be full-time faculty and receive university benefits.

3) Teach standardized curricula wherever feasible. Many lower-division undergraduate courses are taught over and over again, across the state and the nation. Instructors’ time should not be wasted to “reinvent the wheel” in developing and teaching such courses. Standardization also allows outsourcing to textbook publishers and other providers of course content and teaching materials. With nationwide – even worldwide -- markets, these companies can achieve economies of scale, resulting in lower costs that can be passed on to the universities and the students. Textbook publishers already work with professors to design and develop complete courses and then produce the texts and supporting materials. Online support services are installed on many campuses, providing the faculty with both learning content and course management services in the areas of testing and grading.

4) Avoid giving faculty administrative responsibilities. For instance, use standardized academic compliance procedures and establish centralized offices of assessment and of accreditation for all two- and four-year undergraduate programs in the state. This will reduce the committee workload required of faculty and be especially efficient in the standardized curricula. Here again, the private sector can help. The major testing services are already in a position to produce assessment exams and subject matter tests for final certification for graduation.

The process of classroom rationalization is already underway in some areas. The success of accredited for-profit higher education programs suggests that many students are willing to pay for standardized online and on-site courses from professors without doctorates who do not engage in published research. In traditional non-profit institutions, the most obvious case of rationalization is the widespread employment of part-time, non-tenure-track faculty, especially in the teaching of lower-division courses. Making rationalization an explicit state policy would provide a rigorous and academically justifiable system for using this kind of teaching faculty. There would be both formal requirements for master’s degrees and clear exemptions from committee work and scholarly output.

There’s also rationalization in many states’ general education curricula, which account for a large proportion of undergraduate credit hours. The same freshman and sophomore courses are taught at two-year community colleges as at four-year colleges. Why not standardize faculty qualifications for freshman and sophomore teaching across all of these institutions and exempt that faculty from requirements in research, curriculum development, or other committee work? Even in universities that give priority to their research mission, there’s evidence of rationalization of the classroom. The Ph.D.-qualified professors often have little to do with first- and second-year undergraduate courses. In their third- and fourth-year courses, they may only deliver the lectures and leave the test grading and teaching of recitation sections to graduate students serving as teaching assistants. A more efficiently rationalized system would have these sections taught by full-time lecturers, dedicated to teaching, holding master’s degrees, and receiving regular salary and benefits.

One undesirable alternative to rationalizing the classroom is for public colleges and universities to seek larger market share rather than strive for faculty cost containment. Aggressive marketing and building a brand name through sports teams and college rankings are used to justify higher legislative appropriations and higher tuition and fees. Yet excessive subsidizing or artificially-induced demand leads to inefficient use of taxpayer funds.

How does it make sense for schools within the same state system to compete with each other for students? Isn’t it possible that institutional competition in the marketplace indicates excess capacity and there are too many colleges chasing too few students? Why should universities behave as if their primary mission were to survive in a crowded industry? For undergraduate programs, it makes more sense to move away from the traditional academic model, redefine faculty responsibilities to eliminate research requirements for all but a minority of professors, and seek economies of scale through consolidation of administrative functions and outsourcing of committee work.


Joseph T. Johnson is a professor of economics at the University of Central Oklahoma.


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