In June, the Pope Center released a paper by Jay Schalin measuring the teaching loads of faculty in the University of North Carolina system. His report, which sampled a variety of classes at four UNC universities, indicated that faculty spend considerably less time teaching than system estimates claimed—between 2.07 and 2.72 courses per semester, compared with the official estimate of 3.37 courses per professor per semester.
Recently, economist Andrew Gillen unearthed historical data from the National Postsecondary Faculty Survey that back up this claim. Gillen’s findings are, if anything, more pessimistic than Schalin’s because they show a significant decline over time.
As indicated in the table, Schalin used two different methods to estimate the number of courses taught per semester. Method 1 counted each course, regardless of the number of students enrolled. Method 2, a more stringent measurement, counted only courses with at least 3 students enrolled.
Gillen showed that average course loads dropped dramatically from 1988 to 2004. Gillen believes that faculty are giving up teaching time to have more time for research. Looking at the national data more closely, we find in the first graph below that the problem of declining course loads has spread to every type of institution—from research universities to community colleges.
For example, at research universities in 1988, the teaching load was 2.75 courses per professor per semester, on average. That figure fell to 1.6 in 2004.
The decline may be worse than shown here. Changing definitions in the faculty survey from year to year make it difficult to quantify the problem and may explain the unusual pattern of the data (with teaching loads decreasing in every year except 1999). In some years, the data include both “for-credit” and “non-credit” courses in the estimate, whereas in other years only “for-credit” courses are counted. There are also other changes that make comparisons difficult.
The one piece of good news is that course loads are slightly higher at public universities, where taxpayers foot the bill for low teaching loads, than at private ones. However, course loads are declining across both public and private universities, as the chart below shows.
In addition to showing the decline in course loads over time, the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty reveals course loads on a regional basis. In 2004, average workloads at public four-year institutions in the Southeast were 2.5 courses per professor per semester. This is very close to the figures that Jay Schalin calculated.
One cannot help but agree with economist Richard Vedder, who wrote in his 2004 book Going Broke by Degree, “Very significant savings in instructional costs are possible from increasing teaching loads.”