The Economics of Academia (Part 1)

The Economics of Academia (Part 1)

A question was posed my way on the economics of academia. The question(s) asked are as follows:

Why, with the high cost of university tuition, can’t schools have teach-only professors? With a ratio of 20:1 in the classroom and a rate of 100/hour (roughly), why do professors still need to get research dollars? Is it economically feasible to have teaching-only professors? Why doesn’t this happen more? Why do universities have to rely on research funding to stay afloat? We were talking about the demands on researchers and how that prevents better teaching (because so much time is involved chasing funding) and were questioning why not just give up the research side of things?

Wow, that’s a loaded set of questions. There is, actually, an easy answer to this. In short, we have institutes that do specialize in teaching. Community colleges and technical colleges specialize in teaching rather than research. If you assume the lecturer costs $100/hr and there’s 3 hours of lecturing per week and 5 hours of preparation per week, a course costs $800/hr per week. Now, the average semester is around 15 weeks, so that’s $12,000/class. At a 20:1 student/lecturer ratio, that means each student would have to pay about $600/class. Well, oddly enough, I’ve looked up a local community college near SnowU and out of state residents average about $510 per 3 credit hour class. I assumed out of state students because they wouldn’t get the subsidies from the state government. On the surface, this looks like it could be workable. But if we go a little deeper, it starts to look like Swiss cheese.

First, I’ve said before that average starting profs make somewhere between $70k and $90k for their academic salary (assuming Mechanical). If you were making $12k/class, you’d have to teach about 6-7 classes a year to make that salary range. Trust me, no prof wants to teach 3 classes one semester and 4 the next. If you only taught 5 classes/year, then you’d be making $60k. In these economic times, many people would love to make $60k/year. But if you’re talking about qualified teachers with PhDs (and hefty student loans), well why would they teach when they could make double that in industry? Academia already has about a 20% lower salary level than industry and teaching less would only widen that gap. This is the exact same situation when it comes to k-12 education. Why would someone do a very demanding job at a much lower pay than a comparable position that will be less stressful with a higher salary? Doesn’t add up.

In addition to salary, there’s overhead. Even if you assume there are highly qualified lecturers and they are willing to teach 4 classes/semester, you still aren’t breaking even yet. You need classrooms, support staff for administrative stuff, payroll, student loan offices, etc etc. Even if the students pay for the lecturer, who’s going to pay for the support staff. Most universities charge a 40%-60% overhead. Well, if we apply that here, that means it costs students $900/class. Let’s assume it’s a very efficient school and only 20% overhead is needed, that’s $720/class which means there needs to be an offset from somewhere. Well, that’s where state funds and federal grants come in to play. They help offset the cost to try and reduce it to a more manageable number for students.

Clearly, it’s difficult to make education work within those constraints. If you can change a few things, then it’s a little easier. For instance, you could go to 25:1 and 30:1 classroom sizes. Or, you can charge more per class. Or you can pay the lecturer less. But all of those start to make community colleges look like large universities where the difference is made up by research money. Next week, I’ll come back to this question in and really focus on the research university aspects. I’d love to hear your thoughts about my basic analysis and see if that matches your own estimates.


Trust me, no prof wants to teach 3 classes one semester and 4 the next.
So, you’ve never heard of primarily-undergraduate state universities with engineering schools and teaching loads 0f 12 units/term?

I’m at such a place, and you’ve probably heard of our engineering school.

I realized that.

Presumably, you’re at an UG only college with no graduate studies? That’s somewhere between community colleges and large research universities and you’ve jumped the gun on Part 2 of my response.

Again, I think your numbers are way off. Most profs at community colleges are making in the $50-60k range nationally, and most don’t have PhDs. I agree with the sentiment: there are places for teaching. However, based on the pay they’re getting, my feeling is that their contribution is not as valued as those of researchers.

Ahh but there’s a slight difference. I’m not trying to compare the salaries of CC profs. I’m trying to compare it to the salaries of Large Research University Profs which do make in the $70k-$90k range. Obviously, salaries at CCs will be lower but those aren’t the people doing research and teaching.

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