What a Load

I recently had an up-close look at the political science department at UNC-Chapel Hill. My goal was to see just how much teaching the faculty at a typical university department is doing these days.

Let me put my project into context. Not so very long ago professors taught considerably more than they do now. In the relatively short period between 1988 and 2004, teaching loads for professors at American research universities fell from an average of 2.8 classes to 1.6 classes, an astonishing 42 percent decline, according to the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics’ National Study of Postsecondary Faculty.

Naturally, this decline in class load has raised the cost of instruction at our major universities, since more people are now required to teach the same number of classes. It may also have eroded the quality of instruction, since more low-cost adjuncts with less expertise are being employed to fill the gaps in teaching. In any case, teaching loads and their recent decline are a significant part of the ongoing national debate about the rising cost of college.

That debate heated up a few months ago when Texas A&M published a spreadsheet assigning a dollar value to each professor in the A&M system according to the tuition (based on number of credit hours taught) and research dollars he or she brought in. The spreadsheet, officially titled “The Texas A&M University System Academic and Financial Analysis,” was the brainchild of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. No longer available online, the document implicitly sought to highlight relatively low teaching loads and cast a skeptical light on what professors were doing when they weren’t teaching.

“Taxpayers of the state of Texas,” Bill Peacock, vice president of the foundation, told the Wall Street Journal, should decide whether or not “they should be spending two years paying the salary of an English professor so he can write a book of poetry simply to add to the prestige of the university or the body of literature out there.”

That rather harsh assessment was met with some equally harsh criticism of the Texas A & M approach (for instance here and here). On the other hand, some thought it was a pretty good idea—or at least that it might be useful.

Higher education reformer Richard Vedder, for instance, had his “chief whiz kid” Christopher Matgouranis use the data to compile a list of the professors with the highest and lowest per-student costs (salary divided by number of students taught) in twenty different departments. He found that, on average, the cost per student was 400 times higher for the professor with the highest per-student cost compared to the one with the lowest per-student cost. Vedder remarked that the results were “startling, even for a jaded veteran professor like myself who thought he was aware of the budgetary priorities of major universities.”

Inspired by this alarming statistic and curious to get a fuller picture of teaching loads and professor salaries, I examined UNC-CH’s political science department, a more-or-less typical university department. My goal was to determine to what extent the extremes mentioned by Vedder actually represented faculty teaching loads. In other words, the statistics he cited were alarming, but how alarmed should we really be?

I produced the graph below by taking the salary of each tenured or tenure-track professor in the department (available at the Raleigh News & Observer’s website) and dividing it by the number of students each taught (compiled from the UNC-CH directory of classes). I excluded Jonathan Hartlyn, who was paid $177,000 and taught one student and is subsequently off the chart, John Stephens, who taught classes but for some reason wasn’t listed in the directory under political science, and several others for whom data were not available. Most professors, as you can see, teach students at a price to the university of less than $1,000 per student, and only a handful surpassed $2,000 per student.

If you looked for the extremes, you could find something approximating the results Vedder and Matgouranis got. In this case, the ratio of highest per-student cost to lowest per-student cost is approximately 653 to 1 (Jonathan Hartlyn compared to Cecilia Martinez-Gallardo).

But, clearly, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Hartlyn, for instance, was appointed senior associate dean for social sciences and international programs in the College of Arts and Sciences in July 2009.  Given his new role, he has not been teaching regularly scheduled classes.

Another factor mitigating the shock value of such statistics is that upper-level classes naturally have fewer students. As in the Texas A&M spreadsheet and Vedder’s analysis, this makes the professors who teach upper-level classes look worse in terms of cost per student. To demonstrate the effect of class size, I made the following graph showing cost per class (professor salary divided by number of classes taught) and number of students in each class, with class level indicated by color. Each dot represents a class.

From the chart one can tell that most classes have fewer than fifty students, more advanced classes have fewer students, and there are about a dozen lower-level classes with over a hundred students. (Again, this excludes Drs. Hartlyn and Stephens and the few others). There is also a huge discrepancy between the number of students in some of the large lower-level classes and the smaller upper-level classes.  With such large (and small) classes, it’s no wonder that Vedder and I could find such an enormous gap between the per-student costs of different professors, even though teaching a few students in top-level classes may well be appropriate for some highly paid professors. Thus, this more colorful graph shows that extremes are not very representative.

While it is a relief to find that extremely high per-student costs are somewhat rare and, for the most part, justifiable, the numbers do reveal an even more important statistic—one that is relevant to the national discussion on teaching loads. That is the average number of courses taught per professor.  Concern about low teaching loads was one of the reasons behind the A&M spreadsheet that caused so much controversy, and a proposal to raise teaching loads made the number fourteen spot on the Center for College Affordability and Productivity’s top 25 ways to cut college costs.

At UNC’s poli-sci department, tenured or tenure-track faculty members taught an average of just under four classes during the 2009-2010 school year, or about two courses per professor per term. Although this is slightly above the national average of 1.6 from 2004 (the most recently published year), it is quite low by recent historical standards.

And this figure might have been even lower if it were not for legislative intervention. As the Pope Center’s Jenna Robinson has noted, a state law prescribing proper course loads for professors in the UNC system has been on the books for over a decade. At the more research-intensive universities such as UNC-Chapel Hill, at least two classes per semester are required. At other schools, requirements range from 2.5 classes per semester to 4 per semester.

Presumably, the average course load among Chapel Hill’s political science faculty is slightly below the requirement because some professors, like Hartlyn and the department chair Evelyne Huber, have other duties that exempt them from the full teaching burden. Additionally, in some cases professors can use grant money to “buy out” contractually obligated teaching time, although this happens more often in the hard sciences than in the social sciences or the humanities.

In sum, it appears that some of the most alarming statistics that can be gleaned from the Texas A&M study and from an analysis of UNC-CH’s poli-sci department aren’t really all that alarming. But the rapid decline in teaching loads means that universities have become significantly less efficient in a small amount of time, which is something to be concerned about.