Friday, March 15, 2013

When you hear proposals to control tuition by reducing instruction cost...

When you hear proposals to control tuition by reducing instruction cost (in the recent discussions of MOOCs for example), here are a couple of numbers you should keep in mind. They haven't been adjusted for inflation and they're based on a sample size of one, but I still thing they'll gave you a pretty clear picture.

Back in the Nineties I did a four year stint as a lecturer at a large state university. The standard load for lecturers was four courses a semester and the pay was seventeen thousand and change. (I was only on a half load with the other half of my funding coming from other duties like supervising grad students but the following numbers still hold).

If you break it down that comes to less than twenty-five hundred a three hour course. With the exception of a couple of upper level courses, my sections generally ranged from twenty-five to one hundred and fifty students. That means that the per student cost associated with the lecture portion of one of those courses ranged from less than one hundred dollars at the top end to around fifteen dollars at the bottom.

If someone has some current numbers I'd be glad to update the post but as far as I can tell, while tuition has continued to climb since my lecturer days, adjunct salaries have, at best, kept up with inflation and certainly haven't grown enough to be a major driver of education costs. But what's really amazing isn't that you can get people to take these jobs at this pay; it's that you can find wildly overqualified people -- promising scholars, gifted lecturers -- willing to take these jobs. That's how flooded the supply of would-be professors is.

There are well-paid, even over-compensated professors out there but they are all paid primarily for something other than teaching, be it their research or their reputation (which reflects on the school) or the grants they pull in. We can and probably should have a serious discussion about these roles (maybe starting here) but that's a different conversation.

As for controlling tuition by reducing instructor costs, that conversation has to start with a realistic picture of how much people who are hired simply to teach actually make.


  1. When I was an adjunct for an MBA program, my fellow-adjunct colleagues agreed that the position was worth pursuing and doing well because of 1) the networking, from talking to profs to meeting promising students, all of whom would be working somewhere soon and could serve as a contact, and maybe an employee; 2) the opportunity to work collaboratively on melding theory and practice (might be more specific to b-school adjuncts; and 3) the boost of working with young people, enough of whom are bright and challenging to make it worth the poor monetary compensation.

    1. Terry,

      Don't get me wrong. I greatly enjoyed the work (enough to stick with it for four years). I just want to make sure that plans for reducing tuition include the fact that actual instruction costs are not a major driver in most cases.

    2. Yup, I realized as soon as I hit "publish" that my comment was not directly responsive. Your point about instructional costs not being a mother lode of potential cost savings seems valid, especially when combined with the point that profs are paid for bringing non-instruction value. Maybe that non-instruction value could be better monetized? I know that I benefit at very low direct cost from my relationships with academics all over the world.

  2. According to the Delta Cost Project report on college financials from 1999-2009, the ten year increases in spending were:

    Instruction - 24.5% - $3,981
    Research - 29.8% - $2,587
    Student Services - 35.3% - $884
    Academic Support - 31.0% - $1,357
    Institutional Support - 31.6% - $1,689
    Operations and Maintenance - 47.9% - $1,384

    Research is paid for out of research grants.

    It looks like the cost of instruction has been going up. This includes salaries and benefits, so for all I know a lot of this increase is the rising cost of medical benefits and possibly pension costs in the face of lower returns.

    Institutional support - PR, management, finance, administration and the like - was the second biggest growth area.

    Academic support - libraries, computers, networks, dean's offices and the like - was the third biggest growth area.

    Operations and maintenance - physical plant, grounds, insurance, utilities and the like - was the fourth biggest area of increase.

    Student services - admissions, career counseling, financial aid, athletics, student organizations and the like - was the fifth biggest area.

    If you add up the 2nd-5th, you get a much bigger number than $3,981. Yes, instruction costs are rising, but the costs of all the other stuff are going up much faster.

    1. Those are interesting numbers. My only concern might be that we're aggregating small grad classes and large general ed courses.

      Thanks for the info.