The Cost of a University Education

On the way home tonight, I heard an interesting story on NPR on the difference between Lecture’s pay and tenured faculty’s pay. It was interesting to me because it didn’t really discuss how this is tied to the cost of a university education.

At the University of Michigan, there are all sorts of people working there: tenured faculty, tenure track faculty, research faculty, lectures, staff, graduate students, and undergraduate students. There are probably others (provosts? regents?) Staff is an extremely broad category that encompasses people from admin people to engineers to advisors. According to Wikipedia, UM has 6,200 faculty and a total of about 38,000 total employees. That is a pretty big difference.

Merriam-Webster defines Faculty as: “the group of teachers in a school or college”. Further down, they give a slightly different take: “the teaching and administrative staff and those members of the administration having academic rank in an educational institution”. The first definition is a bit misleading, because lectures don’t have to be part of the faculty (although I am not 100% sure of this.) The second definition splits things a bit and sort of hedges with the “and”. The first part of that is somewhat misleading, since administrative staff are not really faculty (and most are probably pretty darn happy about that!)

I think that UM clearly separates tenure/tenure-track faculty from lectures and research faculty:

Lectures are paid to teach classes. They can do other things, but their primary job is to teach. I am not positive if they are considered permanent employees of the university or not. There is a union for lectures. If you are not a tenure or tenure-track professor, and you teach, you become part of the union. According to the Ann Arbor News, “Non-tenured instructors earn $65,000 [per academic year].”

Research faculty are paid to do research. They can do other things, but their primary job is to do research. They are “permanent” employees of the university, except if they lose funding, they will most likely lose their job. There are many advantages and many disadvantages of being a research professor, which I will go into some other time.

Tenure-track faculty are typically assistant professors who have less than (roughly) seven years of experience outside of their Ph.D. research. They have to do research (publish and get grants), teach and do service. If they don’t do as much as people expect of them, they will be asked to leave the university when they go up for tenure. If they do pass through the ring of fire, they get tenure. There are some times in which faculty are hired as an associate professor without tenure. This is typically when the person doesn’t have teaching experience, and the university wants to make sure that they won’t (actively) crucify students and such. Being horrible is fine. Crucifying is bad.

Tenured faculty are associate or full professors that are paid to lead research groups, teach and do a fair bit of service. They get paid pretty well compared to most people, but typically less than really smart people who work for places like Google, Boeing, Bank of America and other big businesses. (I feel like I make a pretty decent salary and I have no complaints about it at all…) Tenure means that you really have to screw up pretty badly in order to get fired from the university, which is meant to allow for a certain degree of academic freedom.

Ok, back to the story. During the story someone said that the lecturer that they were interviewing was making something like $25/hour, since they made something like $75/week and only met with the students (in class) 3 hours a week. What was amazing to me was that this was a faculty member who said this. I can guarantee you that someone who is teaching 3 hours a week spends more than 3 hours a week working. If it is a new class (which I hope to God that it was not), then typical class preparation is at least 3 hours for every hour of class time. Then, you have to hold office hours, which is mostly dependent on how many students you have in the class. If we are super generous, they might only have 2 hours of office hours. Then there is the making up and the grading of homework and tests. To make up homework, it might take two hours for each homework assignment. If we are teaching a relatively easy class, there would be homework every other week. To grade such homework depends completely on what the homework is. If it is on-line, it could be trivial to grade. If it is an essay with 100 students in class, it could take two full days to grade. So, lets give do a couple of calculations. First, if the person has taught the class and only has an hour of class prep a week along with a homework every other week and grading online, with only say 30 minutes of grading time every week. The total time spent on a class per week would be: 3 (in class) + 2 (office hours) + 1 (prep) + 1 (homework prep) + 0.5 (grading) = 7.5 hours. That means that the person is making $10/hour. Now, if you have a large class that you have never taught before with essays, it can quickly get out of control: 3 (in class) + 2 (office hours) + 3 (prep) + 1 (homework prep) + 8 (grading) = 17 hours. That is $4.41 per hour – significantly less than minimum wage! I can tell you that that would suck.

The thing that was never really discussed was that this is all tied to tuition. If you raise the pay for lectures, then you have to raise tuition. The lectures are the teachers at the university who really are getting their sole funding from tuition (most professors have to pay at least some of their own salaries from research grants). Since tuition is going up at such a rapid rate (nearly the same rate as state funding cuts – imagine that!) it is unclear where the extra funds would come from.

The other idea would be to have the tenure/tenure-track faculty teach more of these classes. This is definitely debatable also. One thing that would happen, though, is that the lectures would then just lose their jobs. I am not sure this would be the decision that people would want, though.

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About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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