Faculty Productivity Paradox: Get Paid More, Teach Less

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid, the less they teach.

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid at UVa and the University of Michigan, the less they teach. Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities. (“Click for larger image.)

Newly published research by Sarah Turner at the University of Virginia and Paul N. Courant at the University of Michigan sheds light on a critical factor driving the cost of attendance at public universities: faculty productivity.

Turner’s and Courant’s findings buttress a point we have made repeatedly on this blog: that higher-paid faculty members spend more time on research and teach fewer students than lesser-paid faculty members. Depending upon the academic department, a $50,000 increase in salary results in 5% to 30% fewer students taught (as seen in the chart above).

The analysis is restricted to tenure-track faculty. It does not compare the teaching loads to non-tenure-track “instructors” who get paid less and take on even heavier teaching loads than the professors.

Sarah E. Turner

In a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” Turner and Courant ask if faculty  members are deployed efficiently at research universities. They base their findings on an in-depth analysis of the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, which are consistently ranked among the top public research universities in the country.

The authors conclude that UVa and Michigan are indeed “efficient” in the sense that they are economically rational in allocating faculty time and effort.

Tenure track faculty in research universities teach and they do research. Over the past several decades, the relative prices — in terms of wages paid to faculty — of those two activities have changed markedly. The price of research has gone up way more than the price of teaching. Salaries have risen more more in elite research institutions than in universities generally. …

Departments in research universities … must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also in teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses. The university pays these faculty well because they are especially good at research. It makes perfect sense that they would also have relatively low teaching loads (along with relatively higher research expectations) …

If we accept that the value placed on research in elite research universit[ies] is warranted, we conclude that the deployment of faculty is generally consistent with rational behavior on the part of those universities. Faculty salaries vary, for a variety of reasons, and the universities respond to that variation by economizing on the most expensive faculty….

Bacon’s bottom line. Note the caveat above: “If we accept that the value placed on research at elite research universities is warranted…” This goes to the heart of the debate over college affordability. UVa and other Virginia universities place an extremely high value on research. Why? Because the publication of research has an outsized effect on a university’s prestige, and the research dollars brought in enables departments to employ more faculty and graduate students, also markers of departmental prestige. By contrast, the cost of attendance is incidental to departmental interests.

Students and parents have a different perspective. While an institution’s prestige is clearly a factor in deciding where to attend college, the cost of attendance typically is a central concern as well.

In sum, universities can emphasize faculty productivity in research or in teaching. As the Turner/Courant data confirms, the system pays the most to the faculty members who teach the least. While the authors don’t go the extra step and say so, it seems clear to anyone outside of academe that undergraduate students are paying ever-higher tuition for the privilege of being taught increasingly by junior professors and instructors so tenured faculty can spend more time on writing and research.

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10 responses to “Faculty Productivity Paradox: Get Paid More, Teach Less

  1. Is there data that confirms that Research Universities charge more tuition than non-research Universities?

    If that’s true- it would be a devastating smoking gun… if not.. then we ought to be clear about what we ARE saying.

    If true- I’d imagine it would have serious influence on the debate. If not.. I’m not sure of the value of selecting them to “analyze”.

  2. These referenced papers and Jim’s cover post are useful starting points for a discussion. But it is only a starting point given the enormous amount of variables at play in colleges and universities today. Such as the kinds of research undertaken, the institutions wherein it occurs, the individual research involved, the results of the research, the outside support (or lack thereof) for that research, the impact on undergraduate’s educations (and their tuition) versus graduate students. These nearly endless variables render general statements or conclusions meaningless at the least, harmful at the worst. And of course tenured professors are increasingly less relevant to the undergraduate education in many institutions today. We will try to get into this in later posts.

  3. If there IS a correlation between research universities and tuition – that would be a strong point – but the idea that lay people could do a legitimate data analysis on productivity – I’d be a skeptic.

    Research is not something that lends itself to productivity in terms of “value” or cost-benefit or the the like.. anyhow… because of the way research is done – over time at lots of different Universities, private sector, etc… One guy or gal over 40 years of work might make one significant study – than then just totally transforms a field.. but that breakthrough might have been enabled by decades of work by hundreds of others – none of who got direct “credit” for the breakthrough…

    but if “research” is actually subsidized by tutiton – then that would be a worthy subject of debate.

    just my view… and I’m sure others have thoughts..

  4. Given that Universities and even Community Colleges are to be engines of economic development, the R&D focus is somewhat logical. Since the dotcom boom, the upward spiral of university education to entrepreneur back to university then greater entrepreneurial teams like that of Route 123~Boston have been the model. Route 28 was to be that in Virginia with the CIT building looking rammed into the ground by the Tech Gods at the Dulles ramp. Company funded R&D has been declining for decades as companies counted on Federal government research. That didn’t keep up with needs, so States have jumped in to subsidize research for Economic Development. University researchers don’t always benefit from their work and the competition for few positions keeps PhD’s working on the cheap. The GO Virginia program incorporates the strategy. Is it fair that students fund this with the student loans that high tuition and attendance costs require? Is it just business at work, shifting costs to the public where it can, then complaining about the high taxes for education?

  5. You make excellent points Tom. And your last two questions are particularly telling, namely:

    “Is it fair that students fund this with the student loans that high tuition and attendance costs require? Is it just business at work, shifting costs to the public where it can, then complaining about the high taxes for education?”

    We would be amazed to know how much our college students’ tuition and other costs they incur to attend undergraduate college go to pay costs incurred to support modern faculty research and its growing massive infrastructure.

    And also how much these “research cost priorities” drain the undergraduate education that these kids otherwise would receive.

    In far too many cases these kids are literally being stripped of the means to receive the education they pay for while their costs escalate. And, at the same time, their teaching professors are being stripped on the means to provide those kids that education that they deserve.

    To get a sense of the massive impersonal forces and the personal decisions that are made daily to create this unfortunate reality read closely the study referred to above in Jim’s article namely: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities.”

    And this adverse impact on most college kids education does not include the costs imposed on the nation’s taxpayers (federal and state) to support and guarantee against loss this giant “Research Machine.”

  6. Interesting, but they kind of skirt some key questions or at least fail to quantify them directly: What does tuition actually fund? How much of it goes to undergraduate education? You rarely see this broken down explicitly. Sure, Virginia colleges are now required to break out their student fees by category, but not so with tuition. Rarely do you see hard numbers put on it, but there are some studies. For the University of California System, $18K was the published amount of spending per undergraduate for education per year. $7,500 was the actual amount, which is only 42% of the reported total, and is less than tuition and fees. (Students may think their education is being subsidized by the state, but this is really a shell game in which students are subsidizing university activities other than undergraduate education.)

    So where does tuition money go? I think it is an open secret in academic circles that a lot of it goes to fund research and graduate studies. For instance, one might think all research comes from external sources, but that is certainly not the case. National Science Foundation data shows R&D sources. For UVA, $123M of research was institutionally funded in 2015, or $5,600 per student per year. https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/profiles/site?method=report&fice=6968&id=h2 . For the University of Michigan, it was a staggering $500M, or over $11,000 per student per year. Some of this money may come from alternate sources like endowments or “Strategic Investment Funds” but the majority likely comes from tuition and fees, and specifically undergraduate tuition and fees. When students and families are paying tuition and going into debt to do it (and this debt is subsidized and guaranteed by the government), this is where a lot of it is going, and they don’t even know it.

    This puts forth another set of questions: Should the research (public and private) universities be more transparent about this? Should government do something about it? I’ll leave those questions to the blog for now.

  7. re: ” What does tuition actually fund? How much of it goes to undergraduate education? You rarely see this broken down explicitly.”

    yup. but if you compare R&D University tuition with Universities that are not R&D can you see a higher cost of tuition for one over the other.


    ” So where does tuition money go? I think it is an open secret in academic circles that a lot of it goes to fund research and graduate studies. For instance, one might think all research comes from external sources, but that is certainly not the case. National Science Foundation data shows R&D sources. For UVA, $123M of research was institutionally funded in 2015, or $5,600 per student per year. ”

    Good Chart – BUT – if tuition is the same cost to all students – how do we see different levels of “institutional” to the different courses of study?

    So here is Sweet Briar – and total R&D expenditures downright paltry in comparison HOWEVER about HALF are classified as ” institutional” so I’m not at all sure what “institutional” means… but clearly even small non Research colleges who do NSF research also have “institutional” sources of R&D.

    so good chart.. but we need to understand it better before drawing any conclusions.


  8. ” Other Sources of Funding
    Notwithstanding the continuing dominant federal role in academic S&E R&D funding, nonfederal funding sources have also grown steadily over the past 15 years (figure 5-1). Adjusted for inflation, annual growth in nonfederal funding for academic R&D averaged almost 4% from 1996 to 2012.

    University and college institutional funds. In FY 2012, institutional funds from universities and colleges comprised the second-largest source of funding for academic S&E R&D, accounting for over 19% ($12.1 billion) of the total (appendix table 5-5). The share of support represented by institutional funds has remained near 20% since 1990 (appendix table 5-3). In addition to internal funding from general revenues, institutionally financed R&D includes unrecovered indirect costs and committed cost sharing.[11]”

    [11] Institutionally financed research includes both organized research projects fully supported with internal funding and all other separately accounted-for funds for research. This category does not include funds spent on research that are not separately accounted for, such as estimates of faculty time budgeted for instruction that is spent on research. Funds for institutionally financed R&D may also derive from general-purpose state or local government appropriations; general-purpose awards from industry, foundations, or other outside sources; endowment income; and gifts. Universities may also use income from patents and licenses or revenue from patient care to support R&D. (See this chapter’s section “Commercialization of U.S. Academic Patents” for a discussion of patent and licensing income.)


  9. Larry, I don’t know what are you getting at or what your point is. I think there is pretty strong evidence diverting undergraduate tuition into research has contributed to the price spiral. Hence the questions above.

    If you are suggesting tuition is not used for research, I suggest you look at the following from an article on cost allocation in research universities:

    The dollar amount of this university funded research is, in fact, growing rapidly, as shown for the period 2010-2013 in a Feb. 2015 NSF report.
    Earlier NSF data show similar growth over the past several decades. Although some relatively small portion of these internal research costs may be covered by restricted endowments and the like, most of these costs must be paid out of unrestricted funds. Importantly, for most universities, by far the largest source of unrestricted income is student tuition or state funds nominally labeled as educational funds. As a consequence, the ability to do cost shifting between the research and education modules is very important to the health of the research university. These data strongly suggest that there may be a causative relationship between rapidly rising undergraduate tuition and the research university’s drive to do ever-more research.

    • Thank you Izzo –

      You comment suggests how much research at most universities now is built on the backs of undergraduate tuition and other fees paid by students who receive no benefit from such research. Instead, their education is drained by such research.

      This is what I mean by senior highly paid tenured research professors cannibalizing the educations of undergraduates, those who teach undergraduates, and those who pay for undergraduate educations. Another way to express what is happening under this system is that is Peter (the undergraduate student, the undergraduate students parents, and the under-graduate students under paid professors and instructors) are being robbed of what they need to teach and learn so as to support the research and leisure of highly paid senior professor who contribute nothing to educations of those paying their way. In fact this small group far too often is undermining the education of the vast majority of students.

      This is a national scandal. It is a national scandal that ripples throughout our society, yet another example of how systems are increasingly built in this country to insure that the well off are positioned to soak the middle class. Thus, far too many of our next group of baby boomer retirees, and those American’s who follow them, are entering retirement without sufficient retirement funds to sustain themselves. A primary cause of this increasing trend now will be retirees whose retirement funds were drained by paying for the higher education of their children, including those children who received little or no education but debt instead.

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