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October 17, 2005 [feather]
Too rich for the public good?

Over the past five years, the average in-state tuition for four-year public colleges and universities has risen 36% (during that same period, other consumer prices rose 11%). Higher education enrollment rose by over one million students--or nearly 12%--during these years, though state appropriations for higher education increased only slightly for the same period: In 2001, $67 billion were appropriated nationwide; in 2002, $70 billion; in 2003, $69 billion; in 2004, $69 billion. In other words, though the overall amount of state funding for higher education has risen in recent years, per-student appropriations have dropped sharply, from an average of $6,874 to an average of $5,721. These numbers are reported in this morning's New York Times (thanks to Maurice Black for the link), which also cites Penn State president Graham Spanier's thesis that what the numbers ultimately indicate is "public higher education's slow slide toward privatization."

In the past fifteen years, public revenues have made up a diminishing percentage of public college and university operating costs: Whereas in 1991 state and local taxes paid 74%, in 2004, they only covered 64%. At some state schools, the numbers are strikingly counterintuitive: At the University of Virginia, for example, only 8% of operating costs are supplied by taxpayers; at the University of Michigan, 18%. Private donors and corporations are supplying an ever greater proportion of public college and university costs--and with that shift comes the tough questions of whether public schools are really public, of who really calls the shots at these schools, and of whether and where it is possible to cut costs in such a way that the schools become more affordable and more genuinely public without sacrificing the quality of education they offer.

Skyrocketing tuition is the subject of a similarly intriguing piece in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education, which notes that the current cost of a four-year education at a private college or university is upwards of $120,000. The article reports that the number of student loans has doubled since 1993, that in 2004 alone banks granted over $11 billion in student loans, and that the median income of people with bachelor's degrees has fallen steadily for four straight years. The point of the piece is that higher education may well be reaching its tipping point--the moment at which parents, college-age students, and the general public decide that college is just no longer worth it.

An excerpt:

Gen Xers also were told by one academic report after another how poorly educated they were as a generation, what a "rising tide of mediocrity" they and their schools represented.

Married Gen Xers with children are among America's most conservative voting blocs. They are fiercely protective of their children, in school and elsewhere. On their own and through PTA's, they are doing all they can to make sure that schools don't fail their own sons and daughters the way (they were told) their schools had failed them. Hence, at the grass roots, Gen Xers have propelled school choice, vouchers, charter schools, home schooling, and the standards-and-accountability movement.

And now they are coming, with their children, to college.

When we have raised the issue, we have found that, far more than boomers, Gen Xers are likely to recall college in hindsight as a waste of time and money. Their recollection of their own college years has morphed into a profound skepticism bordering on cynicism, a demand for standards and accountability, and a keen interest in the bottom line. Considering what they have done as school parents, it's not hard to predict how they will behave as college parents. This get-real generation will focus on standards, transparency, measurable results, accountability, and (especially) cost. They will ask, perhaps very pointedly, whether courses and the professors who teach them are worth the money. After carefully checking out the college dorms, food, gyms, and career-counseling services, they will ask about "ROI" (return on investment). Some will wonder whether class discussions focusing on issues of the 60s and 70s, still so intriguing to many boomer professors, teach anything their kids need in the workplace.

Many will ask why, in recent decades, whatever the economic climate, higher education has relentlessly risen in cost relative to inflation. At colleges with large endowments, many will ask why, especially in those years that endowments have grown significantly, keeping tuition low hasn't been given a high priority in the use of endowment funds. Many will ask whether student loans are, in fact, "financial aid" or rather just an inducement to enroll--much as car loans are not "car aid" but a mere inducement to buy a car.

The authors conclude with a warning to higher education administrators: "You should do whatever it takes to hold the line on tuition. Today's colleges are walking a tightrope on tuition, and the rope is getting thinner every year. The longstanding assumption about the collegiate earnings premium is due for a high-stakes reassessment in this new era of high tuition, high debt, and parents with a keen eye on the bottom line."

We are due for a major, nationwide reassessment of higher education. The question is, will Margaret Spellings' national commission, which will hold its first meeting this week, do that responsibly and well?

posted on October 17, 2005 1:41 PM


At this point the shrinking state funding of many public universities has become a shameful ripoff of the middle class. The subsidized tuition level is a bargain for the rich folks (the ones who would have to pay the sticker price at a private school), but at many of these institutions middle-class kids will actually graduate with more debt than they would have incurred at any number of good private colleges. Inadequate support of public universities is a waste of tax dollars whch serves no useful publc purpose. Either raise the subsidy to a level which restores access for the less affluent, or zero it out altogether and stop this regressive transfer of wealth to those who need it least.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne at October 17, 2005 2:20 PM

"stop this regressive transfer of wealth to those who need it least."

You want to reduce the compensation of university administrators and professors?

Posted by: John Lederer at October 17, 2005 7:01 PM

The remarks about the attitudes of GenXers resonated with this GenXer. That's pretty much exactly the way I feel, and I find it difficult to toe the university line that a college education is a necessary and vital component of an individual's life. For many of my students, I think it's a complete waste of time and money. They'd be far better served were there more alternatives with the same job market clout as a university degree.

Posted by: Winston Smith at October 17, 2005 10:02 PM

I agree about seriously investigating colleges for value. I'm not sure if I'm Gen X--I'm 39 and graduated from Caltech in 1987. But I recently attended Columbia (2003-2004) for a career change, and was astonished at the poor quality of education offered--multiple choice exams, little contact with professors, severe grade inflation, etc.

On paper, those two institutions appear to be of similar quality, and I assume they charge about the same--although Caltech does usually win the "value for the money" category in USN&WR. After personally experiencing the difference, I'm quite worried about shipping my 14 year old off to a very expensive diploma mill.

Posted by: Shamhat at October 18, 2005 12:52 PM

Consider The Valve which at least a few people regard as the poster child for what's wrong with the upcoming generation of academics in English departments. In a recent post, John Holbo, apparently unwittingly, referred to the faculty "hiring process" without recognizing he was talking about the tenure track hiring process, which covers fewer than half of all faculty hires. This is a bunch of people who debate how many Derridas can dance on the head of a pin while studiously ignoring the real world.

It's worth pointing out that tenure track faculty do extremely well in pay and benefits. They earn salaries comparable to what highly skilled private sector workers like computer programmers earn in a year, but for only eight months work, and often they have to be on campus for only single-digit hours per week, when school is in session. I think there's a lot of room to cut salaries.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 18, 2005 12:53 PM

Your statement about tenured salaries is a bit too blanket for my tastes. Tenured faculty in the humanities make somewhere in the $40s, on average, and that requires a hell of a lot more work than single digit hours. Only a few superstars actually manage to get into the $70,000-$100,000 range. $40,000 a year is hardly anything to write home about, and generally not enough to help pay back the $60,000+ many of us have borrowed to get the Ph.D.

GOOD professors spend at least two hours of prep time for every hour in class, and often more. Hell, if I'm teaching a novel a week, it may take me a good 6-7 hours to read that novel, and that gives me 3 hours of class time. Now multiply that by 3 or 4. And if I have to grade papers on top of that, perform my service requirements and churn out publications, we're talking a 40+ hour work week.

Granted, some profs in the humanities do jack when it comes to prepping, and simply spin their usual nonsense in whatever course they happen to be teaching. But to punish those of us who are actually doing our jobs by reducing our pay to the point of not being able to meet the cost of living isn't the answer. I'm struggling to get by financially right now, and I don't have time to take on a second job, unless you want the quality if my students' education to suffer greatly.

Posted by: Winston Smith at October 18, 2005 3:44 PM

A quick google for average tenured salaries brought up numerous hits. This one for the Cal State system gives average salaries ranging from 55K for assistant professors to 85K for full profs. This is comparable to the market for programmers in the Los Angeles area, which ranges from maybe 45K at the bottom to 100K plus at the top. If profs at Cal State are hurting, then so is everyone else -- and they're hurting at a rate of pay for eight months that matches what a programmer makes in 12. I stand by my point.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 18, 2005 5:19 PM

Or check this: the average salary at Michican (admittedly top-5, but that says what a top salary is here) for assistant profs is almost $70K. They make it clear that this is for a two-semester gig; those paid on a 12 month basis make even more.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 18, 2005 5:31 PM

I'm talking strictly the humanities here. The numbers you have are including the hard sciences, whose professors' salaries are far higher and generally include grant monies, and business and law profs, who generally make close to or over six figures.

Your average English or history prof is starting in the high 30s or low 40s, and might make it into the 50s with a full professorship, something the universities are handing out less and less. A lot of people I know are remaining at the associate level for their whole career.

Posted by: Winston Smith at October 18, 2005 8:49 PM

I have an ex-brother in law who is a full professor at Notre Dame in the humanities. According to my sister (also at Notre Dame) his annual pay is in six figures.

Posted by: Tom O'Bedlam at October 19, 2005 10:19 AM

Winston, the problem is that you don't have links or even anecdotal evidence to back up your assertion. I'd be interested in either or both. Ward Churchill, in the humanities and without a PhD, has a salary cited variously in the high five or low six figures.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 19, 2005 10:47 AM

This article, by the way, says that salary gaps between humanities and other departments vary by institution, and they are directly related to the perception of quality the institution has of the departments.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 19, 2005 11:12 AM

What I actually find the most amusing about this article is the "blame" they are putting on Generation X for seeking more "ROI" in education. Generation X traditionally has been considered people born from 1961 through 1981 or so. That means the oldest of Gen X is 45 years old, and considering how long a lot of us have taken to have kids in the first place, I find it ironic that the article places some sort of blame on my generation for demanding more of schools and universities.

This article isn't exactly very scientific (e.g. "When we have raised the issue"; with whom, with how many, any statistics?) about its conclusions. However, when it speaks about the cost of higher education and the decline in quality is when the article is most poignant.

Simply put, societal mores (and K Street conservatives) have placed more emphasis on keeping up a big military and placing more people in jail than funding the nation's primary infrastructure, be it roads, public works or education. California is a good example; twenty new prisons in the last 20 years and only one new public university. Unless or until our democratically elected representatives realize that bread and butter issues like education (both primary/secondary and college) are important to the electorate, funding in those areas will continue to decline.

Generation X, in a way, has less power to effect change, being sandwiched between the baby boomers (who no longer see education as a priority because their kids are through school and college, and who vote in the biggest block) and the echo boomers (who, as a group, are just beginning to set out on their own, get married, and children for them are a few years off.) I know few people in my age group that are die hard conservatives, with children or without.

Posted by: Satori at October 19, 2005 11:20 AM

The only places where associate- and full-professor salaries are as low as the forties are third-tier liberal arts colleges with low tuitions and small endowments, and at those colleges the humanists and the scientists have similarly modest salaries.

Posted by: Steve LaBonne at October 19, 2005 11:47 AM

I've discussed Winston's points in more detail here.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 19, 2005 12:20 PM

Well, I work as an assistant professor in English at a second-tier Midwestern liberal arts college, and I was hired at $42,000. Newly promoted associate profs in my dept. have yet to break $50,000.

It does depend on the institution--generally speaking, private schools pay a bit less than state schools, research 1 pay more. Still, no one I personally know in the humanities makes $70 grand or more. Ward Churchill is one of those superstar anomalies, and I think (though I may be wrong) that he has an endowed position, which makes a huge difference.

Tom, if your ex-in-law is teaching law, I'm not surprised at his salary. Law profs rake it in.

Posted by: Alison Ganze at October 19, 2005 12:26 PM


pretty much lets you bring up salary information on many institutions.

For law, http://www.saltlaw.org/salary.htm

Anyway, that might help some with the discussion.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at October 19, 2005 1:24 PM

I looked at the link Steve provided, and while the data isn't very wieldy, it appears that assistant profs at tier 2 institutions start in the mid-40s, with full profs ending up in the mid-60s and mid-70s. This, the article points out, is adjusted for a nine-month year.

I have more detailed comparisons of workload and time off in the discussion on my site I cited above. These folks are making what corporate white collar workers make -- in work weeks significantly shorter than the corporate week, and over a nine month year.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 19, 2005 3:17 PM

Well, John, I've been in higher education for 15 years now, and I've worked at a number of institutions in several states. I've worked at state universities and private universities, and I've never worked anywhere where the professors in the English department were making more than the low 50s. Even at the institution where I did my Ph.D., the high 50s were about as high as it went.

And your estimation of our average work week is way off base. As in any profession, there are people who cut corners and don't do a thorough job--hell, there are people who spend 8-10 hours and day in the office and only really do about 3-4 hours of work. But for those of us who are doing our job, we're putting in just as many hours as your corporate white collar worker. I don't know if you've decided that you will only count the time we spend in front of class or what criteria you're using, but in my own experience, you're wrong. I've taught over 1,200 pages of material in the last two weeks. Does the time I spent out of class reading that material and creating ways of presenting it in class not count as part of my work week? What about the hours I spend meeting one-on-one with students in my office? Do those go towards my weekly tally?

As for summers off, that's a joke. There are meetings when the Spring term ends, there are meeting before the Fall term begins. That's three more weeks of work right there, and the Spring meetings are being held while I'm trying to grade large stacks of final exams and final papers.

Most of my summer is spent prepping for the next year, or trying to fit in my own research for those necessary CV lines if I want to keep my job. Or teaching summer courses, since I don't make enough money in the regular school year to cover expenses.

I chose to do this, so I'm not whining. But my experience as a professor and the experience of most professors I am friends with does not match the picture you're presenting.

All I'm asking is that you use a more narrow brush.

Posted by: Winston Smith at October 19, 2005 4:49 PM

Winston, in my post on my own site, which I think you're referring to, I itemize both prep time -- using the exxact estimates you give -- and standard university requirements for office hours as part of the work week. I don't know what your teaching load is, but using your estimates and general info about workload, we get somewhere between 25 and 37 hours a week. Using your estimates. I'm not sure what you're upset about here.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 19, 2005 5:22 PM

Also, the AAUP Steve pointed to gets more interesting every time I look at it. I looked at several private institutions in my area. Whittier College -- average salary for an assistant prof is 61K, full 97K. Occidental College -- assistant 58K, full 91K. Pomona College -- assistant 58K full 117K. These are a little higher than the figures for the Cal State system I gave in an earlier comment, and they track extremely well vis a vis white collar salaries in Southern California. There may well be differences nationally due to cost of living differences, but clearly nobody on the tenure track in California is suffering based on these figures.

Posted by: John Bruce at October 19, 2005 5:29 PM

I find teaching interesting, partially because I love to do it. Some people need a lot more time than others to do it right, similar to research and writing.

For every health teacher who teaches on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and spends Friday to Monday out of the city on the beach), there is someone who is at the University 60 hours a week, teaching classes scattered from morning to late night (thinking of Cal State LA).

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at October 19, 2005 7:24 PM

Not to say all health professors are like that (since I actually know some in the classes scattered all over, putting in 60 hours a week), but the first "John Bruce" prof I ever met taught TTh, spent the "week-end" on the beach, and had 50% of the class time taken up with reports by the students, a fair amount of the rest with a few sex education videos, etc.

I was impressed when she explained it to me.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at October 20, 2005 7:42 AM

This discussion of faculty salaries is completely missing the point. The real issue is the conversion of universities at all levels to research institutions, with undergrads there primarily to pick up the tab. (a.k.a. "the cost of education") That is what is driving up the cost of tuition, not whether some assistant professor of Diversity Studies is making $5k more or less.

Posted by: JSinger at October 20, 2005 10:04 AM

satori, interesting point - 20 prisons vice one university. This liberal conservative, though, thinks people get better (more relevant) educations in prison than in most California universities.

The number of universities (or any other infrastructure item) isn't an issue at all. The quality, applicability, and relevance of those items is. "Educated" people - degreed individuals - who can't write a gramatically correct paragraph or convey an idea to anyone outside their circle of IM friends - come from universities both public and private.

(Side note - I recently requested one of my hiring managers change his standard from "capable of writing an average college-level paper" to "capable of writing an acceptable college-level paper" - noting there is a difference.)

I have a child graduating college this winter. Not only are graduation requirements less than when I attended college, but grades are inflated and career counseling - what do I DO with this degree - hasn't improved one whit.

Posted by: Tess at October 20, 2005 10:17 AM

California: "twenty new prisons in the last 20 years and only one new public university"...this is a rather meaningless comparison. How much have the *existing* public universities grown over the same period? A more meaningful comparison would be total number of students vs total number of state prisoners.

Do you propose that convicted criminals should be released because of lack of prison space? Do you think that there are large #s of people who are qualified for college but not getting in because of lack of facilities?

Posted by: David Foster at October 20, 2005 10:59 AM

John, your totals for teaching time are reasonable, but they don't support your argument that the academic workweek is short because you've accounted for less than half the job. You've completely left out the time for service, which is typically 3-6 hours a week, and research, which is usually equal to the time for teaching.

A survey of the tenure track science and engineering faculty in the UC system found an average workweek of 65 hours, which is typical in my experience. The workweek isn't any shorter in the summer; it's just focused completely on research.

As for salaries, in engineering and the sciences, they're usually around 60% of what you would be paid in a PhD-level corporate position. Your comparison to typical programmers isn't appropriate, as a PhD in CS works at a different level and is paid on a different scale than your average programmer with a BS in CS. Schools that offer to pay new engineering and science faculty less than the $50,000 a newly minted CS graduate with a BS makes on average have a very hard time recruiting faculty.

Posted by: jw at October 20, 2005 4:31 PM

However, profs in science and engineering are eligible to apply for class release time for externally funded research, which is the name of the game. I believe typical policies allow you to apply to be released from one course of a two-course per semester workload. Aren't we back where we started here?

Posted by: John Bruce at October 20, 2005 5:43 PM

You can pay the university a fourth to a half of your own salary each semester in exchange for an equivalent amount of release time if you have a grant that permits it. However, paying your employer to redirect time from one part of your job to another doesn't increase your salary or reduce your workweek.

You may be able to negotiate release time without paying for it as part of your startup package for your first year, to give you time to write grants, but for the next 30 years, you've got to pay the university for release time.

When you consider the fact that the university takes 20-40% of grant funds for overhead expenses (and a fair percentage for graduate tuition for your RAs), profs who bring in many grants more than pay for themselves.

Posted by: jw at October 20, 2005 7:38 PM

You can pay the university a fourth to a half of your own salary each semester in exchange for an equivalent amount of release time if you have a grant that permits it. However, paying your employer to redirect time from one part of your job to another doesn't increase your salary or reduce your workweek.

That was a timely comment.

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) at October 21, 2005 7:40 AM