Faculty “Cost per Enrolled Student” Varies Widely

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the "cost per enrolled student."
Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the “cost per enrolled student.” Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities.”

More fascinating data from “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” co-authored by University of Virginia economics professor Sarah Turner….

Best paid fields. A key finding of her research is that average faculty salaries vary widely from department to department, depending upon supply and demand considerations specific to each field. Disciplines in which Ph.D.s are employed outside of academia tend to fare better than those with more restricted options. Also, departments that generate outside research dollars pay more as universities engage in bidding wars to recruit star faculty.

Consequently, at UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences fields, computer science and economics professors tend to earn a lot more than English, history and philosophy professors. As a history major, I’m disappointed, but there’s no surprise here. We’re seeing market forces at work.

Cost per enrolled student. Turner and  co-author Paul N. Courant then calculated the faculty cost per enrolled student for each of ten departments. They saw two main variables at work here: (1) how much faculty members are paid, and (2) how many students they teach. As noted in the previous blog post, the more highly a professor is paid, the fewer students he or she is likely to teach.

I must confess that I have long thought that the “hard” sciences were more expensive to teach — their faculty were more likely to engage in research and teach less. But that’s not the case at all. A critical variable I had overlooked is how writing-intensive a course is. Fields like English, history and philosophy require a lot of discussion and writing, and the tasks of teaching and grading students are extremely time-intensive. By necessity, their class sizes are smaller.

By contrast, other disciplines have courses that better lend themselves to lecture-hall teaching, and their answers have more clear right/wrong answers that are easily graded. Faculty can teach larger classes without a diminution in quality.

Thus, we find that teaching English (the most expensive discipline) entails more than three times the faculty cost per student than computer science (the least expensive).

Bacon’s bottom line: It is ironic that it takes two economics professors to generate these numbers. This is precisely the kind of analysis that universities should be undertaking themselves — for every academic department. If we think of English degrees, philosophy degrees, chemistry degrees, computer-science degrees and the like as different product lines, universities should know exactly how much (1) each degree costs to deliver, (2) how much each degree generates in revenue, and (3) how much each degree generates in surplus revenue (or operating profit).

Now, I’m not saying that we should start cutting the English department just because it is “losing” money. Perhaps English writing and reading comprehension is a foundational skill that justifies maintaining writing & critical thinking courses regardless of cost. (There may be less justification for poetry, Medieval literature and post-modern literary criticism.) But when it comes to reallocating resources within a university, administrators and department heads should know at a minimum whether different departments and programs within those departments are money sinks or money generators.

Do universities ask these kinds of questions? Highly dubious. Turner and Courant would not have felt compelled to do their research had UVa and University of Michigan administrations conducted the analysis themselves. The lack of such analytical rigor and the ignorance of underlying costs, I would suggest, is a huge contributor to the rising cost of tuition. How is intelligent cost control even possible? When it comes to university administrations, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance contributes to runaway tuition, student over-indebtedness and the degradation of living standards for an entire generation.

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8 responses to “Faculty “Cost per Enrolled Student” Varies Widely”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    As I recall SCHEV has data reports on the cost of education in the state schools, and it is based on the same kind of analysis comparing the relative personnel and overhead cost of various degree programs. That actual cost data is then compared to the tuition revenue, etc. The report you cite may have a different approach but the basic question has been asked and answered for some time. In general I am sympathetic to the goals of this campaign you are pressing, but deciding which departments are “money generators or money sinks” is not the way I want to see costs controlled. Chalk that up to my own liberal arts degree I guess. There is a place for the large lecture hall and a place for the small grad student seminar.

    As mentioned before, it is the costs outside the classroom, that have little or nothing to do with preparing the students, that need to be ruthlessly reviewed.

    “Perhaps English writing and reading comprehension is a foundational skill…” Gee Bacon, Ya think?

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    I remember a reporter arguing with me, a lobbyist for business, that the public schools had no business preparing people for future employment. To which I replied: who taught you to read and write? Who taught your customers to read? Those skills are the foundations of your business. So the difference would be….what? He had no reply…..

    This is a very interesting post now that I read it again. Why am I not surprised that UVA values philosophy far less than other schools?

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Steve –

    You hit the nail on the head saying: “I remember a reporter arguing with me, a lobbyist for business, that the public schools had no business preparing people for future employment. To which I replied: who taught you to read and write? Who taught your customers to read? Those skills are the foundations of your business. So the difference would be….what? He had no reply…..”

    This study “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” does NOT break new ground. Quite the reverse, it simply explains the philosophy and motives behind those who today are building the modern American research university. And it explains why they, if successful, they will destroy undergraduate education in America for the vast majority of our kids.

    And along the way it explains how they will destroy the teaching of Liberal Arts and Sciences – the humanities – in this nation.

    Precisely how this destruction of undergraduate education in our country will come about is laid out in great detail in this study. The teaching of Liberal Arts and Sciences will be dismantled and destroyed in the name of EFFiCIENCY in their collection of tuition and fees from as many undergraduates as possible while they deprive most of their students of the real education those students need to live full and successful lives.

    This destruction will be done by the use of extremely large classes taught by professors who teach only numbers, not words, and who do not interact with their students as human beings but lecture to them on numbers and theorems, so as to maximize the highest possible salaries for the fewest possible number of select professors who are deemed to excel in research.

    This is a fools errand. And it’s built a circular argument that will destroy education in these universities of liberal undergraduate arts and sciences while it creates a small class of technocratic professor elites who feed off of (read here cannibalize) not only the bulk of their students but also the lower castes of professors who still try to teach their students how to be human.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think this type of approach has any more relevance than to say – for instance, “how many engineers should you have to “efficiently” launch a NASA missile” or how many engineers should VDOT have to maintain our transportation system or similar.

    I don’t discount the concept as used in other areas where there is a much more direct relationship between a more specific task and how much labor is needed but once you go up a level or two .. it’s sorta like asking how many folks are needed by a drug company to do R&D on new drugs… or even how many managers are needed to operate METRO.

    It’s not that these things don’t also need to be operated efficiently – but it’s the idea that average lay people who don’t understand the actual work are just not the right folks to be doing the “analysis”…

  5. Michigan and Virginia make for an elucidating comparison. Michigan is the #2 research university in the country behind Johns Hopkins. We have seen on these pages that some at UVA want to be a research powerhouse like Michigan. If UVA interprets that as matching Michigan’s ability to pay high salaries and then free those people to do research, it is a massively expensive and likely never-ending proposition. Michigan is well ahead in all areas of full professor pay except computer science. And as I noted in another post, Michigan also spends $500M in institutionally funded research per year to $123M for UVA.

    Again, it is massively expensive to play this game. Some of the cost is going to be borne by undergraduates, and it can certainly be argued that it does not benefit their education.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      First, you’d have to convince me that UVA and Mich are different from other Universities in the cost of tuition… and/or show me in general that Research Universities in general are higher in tuition than non-research universities.

      you have to make sure the data you are using is truly representative and not so selective that it really may not be really relevant.

      Next, you’d have to show that tuition actually does pay for R&D…

      I’d put more credence in wide-scope studies across multiple univerisites both R&D and not… more of an industry-wide look.

      More and more – these days – we have selective data used to “prove” questionable premises and usually done by folks who are not really understanding of the area they are “analyzing”.

      I understand the motivation but it’s just not kosher.

      Beyond that – in general – we’re better off letting the “market” – price influence consumers rather than have the govt “decide” what is “efficient” or “value” to then set prices… which is where this kind of thing seems to be going.

      Don’t get me wrong – I’m totally opposed to the out-of-control price of tuitions these days – I just don’t think having the govt decide it is a better approach than the market and consumers and I certainly do not think the govt should be deciding what is “affordable” for certain favored kinds of college – like public ivy on campus residential

      I understand that tax dollars are involved but we no more tell VDOT how much to “charge” for a highway or pay engineers than the man in the moon and we should not be doing in general because tax dollars are involved.

      In the end – if you really want something like this to work – you give the tax dollars to students/parents and let them “shop” for the best deal..

  6. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Here again, Izzo, I agree with you.

    And, unlike what you might surmise from the report under discussion, the building a research university is not only massively expensive, it is far far more expensive than building and sustaining a world class college of arts and science. It is also a highly risky venture. One where great losses can easily be incurred by reason of events outside of the universities control, not be mention by reason of incompetence within the institution.

    Here we are talking about huge up front monies and risks such as continuing market and political risks, such as risks going on right now, and that typically occur every decade or o – recessions, market shifts, changes in political landscapes and the like.

    However, these risks to UVA are unusually fraught. UVA is now engaged in destroying its world class undergraduate programs in the humanities, programs built over generations, programs that are dearly needed today, but that now are being raided and gutted to support fads like stem and undergraduate programs that fail to educate the vast majority of students who lack the foundation of arts and science necessary to fully understand and take advantage of professional training course like Business, law, and medicine.

    Indeed now students are robbed of the means to make an informed choice as to who they are and what they are meant to do with their lives and professions.

    A national tragedy is unfolding at UVA and other major universities. This tragedy is akin to the emergence of the dominate German system of the multiplex professional universities between 1900 and 1940. This was the era when the HUMANITIES DIED in Germany. We witnessed and paid heavily for the results.

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