Addressing College Debt- Part 5: The Professional Solutions

This article focuses on the basic goals of higher education- the creation and dissemination of knowledge.  At the center of that mission is the college professor.  The first order of business should be to create incentives that reward the truly good teachers.  In the lower grades, teachers are annually evaluated, sometimes twice a year.  Yet no such system exists with higher education.  Instead, most pay structures are based not on classroom teaching and student outcomes, but on research and evaluations of teachers from students.  This a perverse system.  Merit pay differentials based on research should be abolished and replaced with a system based on student outcomes.

How is this accomplished?  The first step is the development of a teacher evaluation system that takes in a variety of factors that are weighted with student outcomes receiving the most weight.  This can be achieved through classroom and laboratory observations.  It can be achieved by post-graduate surveys that determine whether the graduate is employed in their area of study at 3, 5 or 7 years down the line.  It can be achieved by surveying students after graduation as to whether the course(s) taught by professor A or B were helpful to them.  Personally, I cannot remember the name of my professor or even anything I learned in Suburban Politics, but I remember the name of my professor and the subject matter from my Neuropsychopharmacology class.  Who should I give the better post-graduate evaluation to?  If we treated teaching and student outcomes monetarily to the same degree of emphasis we currently place on research, it would immediately pay dividends.

Speaking of which, it would also increase labor productivity.  Labor costs are one of the biggest expenditures by college.  From 1970 to 2015, it now takes double the amount of professors to teach 100 students.  While labor productivity has decreased at colleges in the past 45 years, it has doubled in the private sector.  Most professors teach at most 2 classes per semester.  Some classes have only ten students.  Eliminate the low enrollment classes and divert those professors to other classes.  We do not need more professors; we need professors to teach more.  Professors are paid for the equivalent of 9-12 hours of classroom instruction per week.  Imagine if that was made a 20-hour minimum how much a college would save on labor costs.

The practice of publish or perish must cease.  One study showed that over a 25 year period, there were over 20,000 published articles in research journals by college professors on a single subject- William Shakespeare.  How much research is necessary on a dead play writer?  The average professor spends 135 hours in the classroom per year!  The average worker elsewhere works 2,ooo hours per year!  And the average worker elsewhere is paid considerably less.  There needs to be less emphasis on research and greater emphasis on teaching.

Not that all research is unimportant.  But, even this area calls out for reform.  Most research is funded by grants from private industry or the government.  However, only 65% of the money allocated through federal grants goes to actual research.  The remainder of the costs goes towards bureaucratic and administrative overhead.  The practice of negotiable federal research overhead payments must cease.  Under these arrangements, the federal government pays for as much as 60% of the overhead.  This only increases the bureaucracy.  Not all overhead payments should be eliminated, but they should not be negotiable.  Instead, a national uniform overhead ceiling must be established and enforced.  Furthermore, grants should be based on a point system where practical applications take on greater importance.  There may be fewer grants to study the mating habits of the gibbon, but it is a price I believe taxpayers can afford.

Colleges are supposedly the great purveyors of knowledge and many colleges perform this mission admirably.  However, ALL colleges are decidedly anti-knowledge when it pertains to themselves.  Instead, they use broad categories like graduation rates, tuition costs, and average SAT scores.  That is great, but graduation in what areas of study?  What is the employment rate of graduates in their major field of study?  There is a plethora of information colleges do not readily divulge which they have access to or that the government can readily access.  Greater transparency in a variety of specific areas can be achieved and centrally disseminated without increasing the bureaucracy anywhere.  Statistics from the IRS, BLS and other agencies can be gathered and published with the emphasis on student outcomes and post-graduate success.

No discussion of reform at this level would be complete without discussing tenure.  At one time, tenure made some sense in that it protected academic freedom.  A tenured professor could not be terminated for teaching a controversial subject.  Provided there are adequate guarantees of academic freedom, tenure should be replaced with guaranteed 5-7 year long-term contracts that are then reviewed and renewed if necessary.  In the alternative, tenure can be granted in exchange for a lower rate of pay.  The Left is big on “choice.”  Give professors the choice of job security or job mobility and the lure of higher pay.  However, once the 5-7 year contract is entered into, it must be enforced by both parties with penalties for withdrawing from the contract.  Of course, medical/family leaves and the like would have to comply with state and federal laws.

And finally, most professors do not take full advantage of technology.  The Internet explosion has created a wealth of opportunity to reach a greater number of students at relatively low cost.  Remote learning and computer courses must be enhanced and treated equally with classroom instruction.  Of course, there is always the risk of cheating on remote learning program exams.  However, the technology exists to guard against “student” fraud in this area.

Tomorrow, I will discuss the problem of dealing with current college debt.