New Study Blames Tenured Faculty & Their Anemic Teaching Loads For Spiraling College Tuition Costs

If colleges and universities were serious about making school more affordable, they could start herding professors back into their classrooms.

The declining teaching load of tenured professors and tenure-track faculty has boosted the average cost of college per student by $2,598 annually, according to a new study by the Education Sector and The American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Between 1988 and 2004, the average number of classes that professors taught declined 25 percent — from 3.6 to 2.7 courses per term. At research-intensive universities, the typical professor teaches just 1.8 courses. However, similar declines may be seen at every class of higher education institution in the U.S., including at community colleges, where the number of courses taught per year has declined, as well. The study’s author, Andrew Gillen explains:

Professors are spending less time teaching. From 1987-1988 to 2003-2004, the average number of courses tenured and tenure-track faculty taught per term (commonly called the teaching load) declined 25 percent. It is hard to overstate how dramatic this decline has been. For example, liberal arts colleges tend to specialize in teaching, and yet professors at liberal arts colleges taught less in 2003-2004 than professors at research universities did in 1987-1988.

Universities are shifting their priorities. Teaching loads have been declining primarily because research has been increasingly prioritized by both universities and faculty. For faculty, publish or perish has come to dominate tenure and promotion decisions; for institutions, bringing in research dollars is a mark of prestige. As a result, both colleges and their faculty are putting more emphasis on research … at the cost of teaching.

Gillen’s study, “Selling Students Short: Declining Teaching Loads at Colleges and Universities,” doesn’t mince words:

When it comes to laying blame for the high price of college, one culprit always comes to the fore: the size and the cost of faculty. Faculty salaries often account for the majority of a university’s spend¬ing, and these salaries not only compensate faculty for their research but for directly instructing students as well. Yet this latter responsibility, fundamental to a faculty position, has in recent years been a declining part of the job.

Meanwhile, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 59 percent of adjunct faculty who responded reported teaching 3 or more courses per year, with 25 percent reporting that they’d taught 6 or more courses. Interestingly, the same survey revealed that about half of the respondents were teaching part-time because they wanted to do so. Those same survey respondents reported earning, on average, between $10,000 and $20,000 per year, with only 14 percent of the respondents saying that their employer provided any benefits, such as health care.

So, at colleges all over the country tenured faculty are being fed the lion’s share of the money allocated to pay and benefits, while teaching fewer and fewer courses. According to the Education Sector report, if full-time faculty teaching loads had not shrunk, over half of tuition increases during that period could have been avoided. Gillen writes, “Faculty salaries often account for the majority of a university’s spending, and these salaries not only compensate faculty for their research but for directly instructing students as well. Yet this latter responsibility, fundamental to a faculty position, has in recent years been a declining part of the job.”

“This research shows that the rising cost of college cannot be blamed solely on external factors such as decreasing state appropriations or inflation,” said Andrew Gillen, research director at Education Sector, a think-tank that specializes in educational policy. “Colleges can — and must — take steps on their own to stem the ever-increasing rate of tuition increases. Increasing teaching loads even marginally can have a tremendous impact on cost.”

Why professors don’t teach

One major reason for the reduced teaching loads is the emphasis on research over teaching. For example, the study cited a survey conducted by the Modern Language Association that found that between 1968 and 2007, the percentage of English and foreign language departments that ranked research over teaching when making tenure decisions jumped from 35.4 percent to 75.7 percent.

It’s easier to evaluate professors based on their research, such as articles published and cited, than it is to evaluate teaching ability. Conducting research and publishing are not only essential for academics hoping to win tenure, but also can help professors widen their reputations, which leads to other rewards. Gillen writes:

Professors and universities, therefore, can convincingly demonstrate that they produce high-quality research by pointing to numerous articles in top journals, but they have a much harder time showing that they are producing high-quality teaching. As a result, the personal and institutional benefits from better research are concrete and relatively immediate, while the benefits of better teaching are vague and long term. For example, excellent research will not only help a professor get hired and earn tenure, but it often leads to a national reputation, one that will ensure job security and likely more pay (since a good reputation will generate job offers from other universities). Excellent teaching, on the other hand, does less to help a professor get hired or earn tenure at many, if not most, institutions. And excellent teachers don’t have the monetary or job security benefits of a national reputation—particularly at larger institutions, most great teachers are probably not even known on their own campuses.

It is this finding that should be a wake up call to non-tenured faculty looking to jump onto the tenure-track. Research and writing are the key to having a chance at landing a tenure-line job, not excellence in the classroom. Furthermore, college administrators face little financial disincentive when lowering the teaching loads of a department’s tenured faculty. Adjuncts are a low-cost alternative. Gillen’s study estimates that if tenured faculty at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, for instance, were required to teach just one more class per term, the institution would rake in close to $1 billion dollars in additional tuition revenue ($997,034,643) per year, an amount that would increase that university’s $6 billion dollar budget by 16 percent.

What this would mean for adjuncts and other full-time temporary faculty is clear: job loss.

Short URL:

3 Comments for “New Study Blames Tenured Faculty & Their Anemic Teaching Loads For Spiraling College Tuition Costs”

  1. YES! Thank you for the link to this study and for writing about it.

  2. I am absolutely opposed to full-time faculty denigrating adjunct colleagues. That has to be a two-way street, starting with an understanding that ACTA will never be the advocate for any faculty, full-time or part-time. There are enormous problems with this “study,” and it is disappointing to see AdjunctNation take it at face value without reporting the quick criticisms of this.

    • @Sherman, I’m not sure studies by advocates for college faculty are the most reliable, either. I’d be interested to know what problems you identified with the study. In addition, while we might identify “issues” with the study, I think we still need to ask why tenure-line and tenured faculty who receive the lion’s share of money available for faculty compensation teach less than lower-paid FT lecturers and PTers.

Leave a Reply

Keep in Touch With AdjunctNation

Graphic Graphic Graphic



Recently Commented

  • AdjunctNation Editorial Team: @Jeffr thanks for pointing out the distinction.
  • Jeffr: Note that adjunct faculty are considered to be on a “term” basis and receives no protection except...
  • Scott: I believe Sami is correct in that this no reasonable assurance language will allow adjuncts continuing access...
  • Nancy West-Diangelo: It’s as if we’ve lost the ability to listen critically. If the point of the work we...
  • Freddi-Jo Bruschke: An excellent description of this editorial.