Thursday, March 29, 2012

More on seventeen thousand -- bounding the problem

As I mentioned before, David Levy has come in for plenty of criticism over his recent Washington Post piece, but there's one more point I'd like to throw in. Here are the passages that caught my eye:
The cost for such sinecures is particularly galling when it is passed on to the rest of the middle class and to taxpayers in states that are struggling to support higher education. Since faculty salaries make up the largest single cost in virtually all college and university budgets (39 percent at Montgomery College), think what it would mean if the public got full value for these dollars.


If the higher education community were to adjust its schedules and semester structure so that teaching faculty clocked a 40-hour week (roughly 20 hours of class time and equal time spent on grading, preparation and related duties) for 11 months, the enhanced efficiency could be the equivalent of a dramatic budget increase. Many colleges would not need tuition raises or adjustments to public budget priorities in the near future. The vacancies created by attrition would be filled by the existing faculty’s expanded teaching loads — from 12 to 15 hours a week to 20, and from 30 weeks to 48; increasing teachers’ overall classroom impact by 113 percent to 167 percent.
(First a brief aside: in a service industry, I would normally expect that much, if not most, of operating costs would go to the salaries of the workers who provide that service. 39% is not outside of the reasonable range for this situation but it is low enough to make me wonder if cost cutters shouldn't be asking what happens to the 61% that doesn't go to teaching.)

Let's take a quick pass over these numbers and put some bounds around the possible values and see if they justify the impact Levy's changes would have on students (whose teachers would have less time for preparing lessons, grading, answering student emails, counselling, or going over material outside of class).

Please check my math on this but assuming that your 39% was made up entirely of full time faculty teaching twelve hours a semester and you could get 37% of that faculty to increase its workload by 167% and you could immediately get all of the rest of the faculty to quit, you'd reduce your budget by just under 25%.

We could debate whether reducing a school's expenses by a quarter would be worth the loss in quality, but it would be impossible to find a school that met those assumptions. Most of the schools we're talking about (apparently including Levy's example), have fifteen hour loads. This drops the reduction to just over 20%.

And almost all schools (including Montgomery) have part time faculty or graduate TAs. Without mass firings, doubling the workload of full-time faculty would mainly result in reducing work for low-paid part timers (At Montgomery, the starting rate is less than $900 per semester hour). Now we're looking at less than a 10% reduction in costs.

In other words, David Levy's proposal, which requires shabby treatment of employees and a sharp drop in educational quality, would only produce a five or ten percent drop in tuition.

This is not a serious proposal, it's just another example of someone trying to get some attention by taking a provocative position without doing the actual work needed to support it.

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