Sunday, March 25, 2012


Fish? Check. Barrel? Check.

So the interwebs were abuzz this weekend with discussions of an editorial in the Washington Post arguing that professors are vastly overpaid relative to their work, and that their relative laziness is a primary driver of the higher ed cost spiral.

The usual suspects responded with the usual flurry of attacks.  Several pointed out that the Post is owned by the Kaplan company, which also owns a host of for-profit colleges.  Predictably, there were plenty of “not me!” statements, assertions of superhuman workweeks, and ritualistic denunciations of “administrative” costs.  

As is usually the case in straw man conflicts, neither side really got to the heart of the matter.  The op-ed completely whiffed on causality, and the major objections whiffed on relevance.

The op-ed purported to condemn academic labor costs, yet it never mentioned adjuncts.  That’s a remarkable omission, especially at the two-year level.  And while it addressed salaries -- which have gone up in the low single digits annually at best for a long time -- it never mentioned benefits, the costs of which have gone up far faster.  (As long as that’s true, the gravitational pull towards adjuncts will be hard to fight.)  

It also took a number of stupidly cheap shots.  Measuring faculty workload solely in terms of classroom time is like measuring athletes’ workload based on how long the event takes.  By that measure, sprinters are the laziest people on earth -- they work only seconds per day!  The idea that a 5/5 load equates to a fifteen hour workweek is true only if you assume no preparation or grading.  (Having taught that load myself, I can attest that the assertion is pure crap.)  If there’s a real issue here, it’s the mismatch between what’s good for the organization and what it chooses to reward.  Because in the system we have, there’s often very little incentive for the professor to do more than the bare minimum.  Many do, to their personal credit, but those that don’t, don’t really face consequences for it.  

Which begins to get at the actual issue.  The higher ed cost spiral has outpaced inflation at every level of higher ed, in every institutional type, in every region of the country, for decades.  To attribute that to personal failings is preposterous by definition.  Clearly, the cost issue is structural.

Some have claimed that “administrative bloat” is the heart of the problem.  (This tends to be the favorite whipping boy on the interwebs.)  Never mind that this assertion has been empirically discredited, or that the “supervisory” ranks in colleges have shrunk even faster than the full-time faculty ranks.  The only actual growth has been in IT, services for students with disabilities, and financial aid.  Firebrands are invited to explain which of those they’d cut.

Although I find the “administrative bloat” canard both offensive and tiresome, the real problems with it are twofold.  First, it’s simply false.  (I like to think that matters.)  Second, it’s politically tone-deaf.  College administrations are the people whose job it is to manage college budgets.  Painting administrations as bloated and incompetent will push legislators in exactly one direction: cutting budgets.  Would you entrust growing sums to people who don’t know what they’re doing?  If we want to encourage more generous appropriations -- which I’d think we would -- the first thing to do is stop disparaging the folks who would manage the money.  That’s Politics 101, and I’m still amazed at the number of intelligent people who don’t see it.

So if the real issue behind the cost spiral isn’t faculty laziness or administrative bloat, what is it?  Is it climbing walls?  (Most cc’s, mine included, don’t have them.)  Is it football?  (Ditto.)  Lavish dorms?  (Ditto again.)  

Is it financial aid?  Has financial aid loosened the sense of fiscal responsibility on college campuses?

That has a certain first-blush appeal to it, but it flunks the comparison test.  The health care cost spiral hasn’t been hampered by over fifty million Americans lacking health insurance.  Remarkably, the veterinary health care cost spiral has been similar, despite the almost entire absence of pet insurance.  (It’s also hard not to notice that single-payer health care systems have much lower costs overall, which is the opposite of what the “external payer hurts discipline” theory would predict.)  The “Pell is the Problem” theory also completely fails to explain the rise of private lending, which covers the increasing amounts that subsidized aid won’t.  

So no, that’s not it.  I’ll boil it down to two.

The first, which is easy to explain, is cuts in public appropriations.  My own college gets about five million per year less from the state than it got four years ago.  (That’s over ten percent of its total budget.)  That’s before adjusting for inflation.  In many other states, it’s considerably worse.  You simply cannot remove that much money that quickly without consequences.

The only problem with this theory is that while it’s unassailable in explaining the last few years, it isn’t as strong in explaining the preceding decades.  Yes, the recent fiscal sinkhole matters, but tuition went up fast during better years, too.

The longer-term issue is productivity.  And no, that’s not a euphemism for “you’re too lazy.”  It’s simply to say that if you continue to measure learning in units of time, and those units don’t change, then your productivity increases will forever be zero, by definition.  When the rest of the economy grows a few percent per year for decades, the gap compounds.  It’s called “Baumol’s cost disease,” and it’s endemic to education and health care.  And that’s true whether the professors or doctors are lazy, conscientious, or even heroic.  It’s not about them.

I have to admit being of divided mind on this one.  Long-term, I’m convinced that the only way to break the spiral is to break free of time-bound measures.  The credit hour must die.  But in the short term, no amount of innovation is likely until we get sustainable operating budgets on the political side and some room to move on the legal side.  As long as we’re stuck fighting rearguard battles externally -- and dodging circular firing squads internally -- we’ll continue down the path we’re on.  

That’s a lot harder than pointing at some lazy professor and laughing, or pointing at some insipid op-ed and sneering.  It requires a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the core of what we do.  That’s not sexy, or easy, or fast, or cheap.  But unlike shooting fish in a barrel, it’s actually worth doing.


My barber, and every barber I've been to, takes about the same time to cut my hair as he did 20 years ago (even if I have less of it now). No productivity increase there. Has the cost of a haircut kept pace with tuition? Why or why not?
Surely you have learned by now that most people have NO idea how different CCs are from an R1 U, just as they have no idea how much work is required to teach 15 hours (or more) per week. [Yes, colleagues who use poorly designed m.c. exams annoy me, but for every one of them there are plenty of others who grade essays or hundreds of pages of equations or lab reports on a regular basis.] The WP folks should know they are cherry picking their salary example, unless they are using utter ignorance as their excuse for prevarication. Which might be the case, since they are utterly clueless about the hours worked by faculty at research universities.

However, you should have read your "empirical" evidence and realized that it says nothing at all about the changes between 1960 and 2000, as it provides only a snapshot of what happened during a depression. Even then it clearly documents that there are only 2.5 students per staff member at large research universities that also have the highest tuition. That is the "administrative bloat" that people talk about.

All comments about "bloat" need to be qualified by where the writer saw an instance of same.

That said, my college has recently added a significant number of people paid at the f-t faculty level who don't teach a single class. It does exist, just not on the scale as we see at universities.
I work in IT at a community college. I also attended that CC and I know a lot of the faculty. I have two thoughts to share.

First, there is a lot of variation in the actual working hours of our faculty. Some of them are lazy; that shouldn't surprise anyone. The large majority of them are caring faculty who want to do well by their students and put in several hours outside of the classroom for every hour they spend in class. They prep their classes, update them regularly, grade papers, participate in shared governance and help with staff development or student extra-curriculars. We also have faculty who work twelve hour days. One of my former professors is on campus from 8am to 10pm a lot of days.

Second, IT costs are definitely part of the increase. I suspect this is partly due to IT salary increases although I don't have hard numbers on that. IT people weren't in particularly high demand in the early 90s. By 2000, that had changed drastically. Once upon a time, the mission of IT was to automate tasks and make things more efficient. More and more, we're asked to offer services that just didn't exist before. We have online classes, student email, web portals, on-campus wireless networks, etc. We also have several computer labs that are aligned to various instructional programs. The faculty want/need various software packages to use in these labs and we have to support those. The use of video-rich web sites requires a relatively high speed network. If IT was relegated to it's original role as a "data processing" outfit, the costs would be much lower, maybe half of what it is now. Instead, IT has increasingly been seen as a vehicle for new/better services for faculty and students and those services come with a cost. Are all of those services necessary? Probably some are and some aren't. Can we eliminate them? Probably not. Students except them and in many cases so do the accreditation agencies.
"The only actual growth has been in IT, services for students with disabilities, and financial aid. Firebrands are invited to explain which of those they’d cut."

Is simplifying the complex process of applying for financial aid (and thuis reducing the staffing costs associated with it) really an idea beyond the pale?
After reading your piece (and the original one, which made me want to punch things), I'm left thinking about what counts as productivity. When I think about colleagues of mine who have retired, and the stories that they tell about workload from 30 or 40 years ago, I think faculty productivity actually *has* increased. These dudes (for yes, they were primarily dudes) did not publish anything (or even attend conferences to keep up with the conversations in their fields), did not make any of their own photocopies, did not *type their own syllabi and tests* (and thus, also did not regularly update their courses). They were available to students during office hours, but that was the only time they were available because they didn't have email. Oh, yes, and they didn't keep up with technology or have any responsibility to learn technology because faculty members in my university didn't get their own computers until sometime in the mid to late 90s. There were fewer committees and thus less responsibility for committee work. (Committee work multiplies as administrative units multiply.) There was a culture in which the professors would cut out in the afternoon for martinis.

So my question is this: in what way has productivity NOT increased from that baseline? Because when I think about the above workload, for which these men made middle-class salaries and for which they earned tenure, it doesn't seem like anybody today is doing *less* work than that. And if we're doing more, then my question is why that doesn't *count* as people evaluate faculty productivity?
Levy's take on hours per week is, frankly, insane. If a STUDENT is told they need to spend four hours outside of class to do work for every one hour in class, why the heck would we assume profs have a 1 hour outside : 1 hour in class ratio?
Also, I'm pretty sure he is not quoting anything like average salaries.

And I also agree with Dr. Crazy- I doubt the reason for increasing costs has been a decline in faculty productivity. Though it may be worth noting that what faculty see as productivity (i.e. research) is not what students and parents necessarily see as productivity.

It's also important to note that there are few middle-class professions that have increased in real wage over the last 20 years, and many of them have also had credential and performance expectation inflation. Academics aren't unique.

All of that said, if we do believe in bringing higher ed to more people than we used to, and that drives up costs (e.g. I'd attribute at least part of the disability and financial aid office costs to this noble goal) could we realistically come up with models that were more efficient?

The one part of Levy's argument I was slightly swayed by was the idea of working only 32 weeks/year. Some faculty at research-teaching hybrid institutions easily spend the equivalent of 18 workweeks a year on research. But many do not.

I don't see why 43 weeks/year of class time (and 3 years for a bachelors degree) couldn't be a new normal for higher ed. Indeed, until they do that, I don't think Baumol's cost disease is necessarily what ails us. You can't grade more exams per hour, sure, but why not more per year?
At my cc, it's pretty easy to count the number of deans and vice presidents.

The "bloat" is in classified directors and supervisors. In some places there's one chief in charge just three indians.

And it's getting worse. When classified staff are laid off or retire, they're not replaced, so there are even fewer indians and the same number of chiefs.

I teach at a cc that is poised to go on strike soon. One of the arguments has to do with the documented fact that over the last 10 years the ranks of administrators have grown by 46% while FT faculty have risen only 6%. How is this not bloat?
When I wrote my initial comment, I took your description of that article as an "editorial" at face value. I did not see the last paragraph, which makes it clear that this is actually an "op ed" opinion by a retired college president, until recently. My presumption that the WP had vetted this as an editorial was misplaced, although I do assume that they read it before deciding to publish it.

Two observations:

I've been in the Corcoran Gallery several times. I would not characterize someone who ran it and the affiliated college of art (with $31,000 annual tuition and fees according to its website) as a person who would be expected to be familiar with the teaching load or work habits of community college faculty. Ditto for his previous job leading the New School University, with tuition of almost $20,000 per term.

Therefore, he can plausibly be excused for being ignorant of what CC teaching faculty do, but not excused for exposing his ignorance via proof by emphatic assertion. What he really should do is explain why tuition at his institutions is so high.

Second, the data concerning salaries at Montgomery College seems suspect or it is heaven on earth. There are allegedly 584 full-time faculty and 283 part-time faculty, which is an exceptionally high f-t rate with a decent ratio to their 26,000 students. Further, the rank of "lecturer" (which includes adjuncts) averages $54,000 per year. Not bad, if true.

However, the CBA for that college says adjuncts make about $900 per semester hour, which will not add up to $54,000 per year. I had no luck finding the faculty salary schedule, so I can't tell if the reported faculty "salaries" include overload classes, as they do at my college.
For a view of the facts from within Montgomery College, read this:
FWIW, and based on personal observation the real issue is asymmetry in workloads. At places where the majority are busting their butts, slackers are not accepted and their life is made tough, however, at the moment where the slackers achieve majority status the workload goes to zero except for an obsessed few.
"Is simplifying the complex process of applying for financial aid (and thuis reducing the staffing costs associated with it) really an idea beyond the pale?"

It's not beyond the pale; it's just impossible. DD has commented repeatedly on his respect for the financial aid folks who rope a tremendously complex nexus of system, money, and human life into some kind of organization.

You just flat out need person-hours
to do a good job with that, and doing a bad job costs more than doing a good one.
I can't believe we had an entire discussion about this article without mentioning that Kaplan Test Prep Daily (also known as the WaPo) has a big vested interest in tearing down our current educational system.
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