Reply to Dave Taylor Re: March Forth

Peter Wood

Editor's note: This posting is a response to a comment on the NAS article "March Forth."

My thanks to Dave Taylor for his cogent response and good question. I should say first that my observation on the excessive scaling up of universities wasn’t meant to apply to California in particular, but to the situation across the country. California, however, is the leading example of a public university system that has grown beyond its capacity to perform its mission competently.

Mr. Taylor asks me to clarify my statement, in which I agreed with the AAUP that the shift away from full-time faculty members to part-time and adjunct teachers erodes the quality of higher education.  The AAUP sees the danger arising from administrators who can hire and fire the part-timers at “whim.”  But I see the danger as arising from another quarter:  “It comes from scaling up university enrollments past the point in which it is financially feasible to sustain the curriculum on the basis of a mostly full-time tenured faculty.” 

That was a very terse way to summarize an argument that didn’t properly fit in a brief report on the March 4 protests.  Mr. Taylor correctly spots one of the unexpressed points: colleges and universities that admit more students than they can properly teach compromise their educational programs. But since each additional student brings an increase in tuition revenue, how does expanding its enrollment hurt a college or university financially?  Isn’t more revenue just more revenue?

My point—which is not especially novel—is that high-quality college instruction has few and limited economies of scale.  The largest single cost in higher education has long been faculty salaries.  (This may be changing, but more on that below.)  Higher education overall has achieved little of the enormous gains in “productivity” that most other sectors of the economy have achieved in recent decades.  A good writing class can seldom be larger than twenty students without a steep drop-off in the level of individual attention to each student and without reducing meaningful assignments to a handful a semester. (Ideally a freshman writing class should require weekly original papers. I doubt that there are any such courses in the California public system.) 

Ever since the post-World War II boom in college enrollments, administrators have struggled to find ways to increase faculty productivity.  The most famous step was the creation of mega-lectures, usually in introductory courses.  A few faculty members excel at this form of instruction, but it really doesn’t solve the larger problem.  Frequently the lecture course is married to “discussion sections” led by teaching assistants and adjuncts.  So the mega-lecture approach turns out just to be a backdoor to the same labor-intensive teaching that it was meant to ameliorate.  Moreover, students as a whole are less and less interested in attending lectures.  Posted course notes, the professor’s own Power Point summaries, and online versions of such courses proliferate. 

The search for greater faculty “productivity” in teaching always hits the wall that traditional teaching, done right, is essentially a small group undertaking.  How small the group depends on the subject and the ability of the teacher.  Some subjects require intensive instruction; others can be scaled to groups of 50 or 75 students, perhaps with the help of a T.A.  But scaling even at that modest level almost always entails some erosion of quality.  The number of graded assignments dwindles; tests become mostly multiple choice and short answer; safeguards against cheating and plagiarism weaken; students who should be pushed are allowed to slack; professors fail to learn the names of every student, let alone every student’s characteristic strengths and weaknesses. 

The latest way to achieve the economies of increased instructional productivity in higher education, of course, is online curricula.  Online course are increasingly popular with students and they do, to some extent, bypass some of the stringencies of small-group teaching.  My guess is that, in time, a large percentage of high school graduates will opt for online-only or online-mostly college instruction.  If that were to happen, the deeper problems that lay behind the March 4 protests would become irrelevant.  The public will have chosen a “good-enough” substitute for the relatively expensive, too-often-mediocre, and sometimes spottily delivered public university offerings of today. 

Can an online curriculum provide a really top-drawer liberal arts education?  Maybe not, but that isn’t really the issue.  The issue is that if our society—or California in particular—continues to stick with the idea that nearly every high school graduate should go to college, the only financially feasible way to achieve that consistent with maintaining any worthwhile level of academic quality will be for a large percentage of those students to study online.  There is simply not enough money that can be taxed out of taxpayers or borrowed against the supposed future earnings of college graduates to send these students to colleges run on the basis of full-time professors teaching moderately-sized classes.

I said above that the largest single cost in higher education has traditionally been faculty salaries.  But that may no longer be the case.  Two years ago the Department of Education reported that what it classes as “administrative” positions had finally edged past the number of teaching positions in higher education overall.  We have surely seen an extraordinary expansion of the non-teaching side of the university.  Mr. Taylor suggests that I am unrealistic (it is a “nice fantasy”) to think that colleges and universities would “cut faculty and administrators.”  Perhaps.  Maybe California has not yet reached that existential moment when it has to decide whether maintaining thousands of positions for quasi-therapeutic counselors, identity politics factotums, sustainability officers, and the like is so important that it is willing to suffer a decline in the quality of its academic programs to a derisory level. 

To be clear, I don’t have a “socialist” response and Mr. Taylor’s remark on that score in turn perplexes me.  How is it “socialist” for California—or any state—to say, in effect, “We cannot afford to pay for a traditional college education for everyone?”  I am not in favor of “manipulating” anyone to lower “demand” for higher education.  Lowering state incentives that stimulate demand isn’t manipulation.  It is just good sense.  

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