Friday, 25 August 2006

Tales from the positional arms race

Two posts from a couple of my favorite academic bloggers crossed the wires today, on two different aspects of what Stephen Karlson calls the “positional arms race” in higher education. Margaret Soltan excerpts a Newsweek piece looking at the argument that more prestigious undergraduate institutions do a better job of educating the masses than the “mid-majors”:

Underlying the hysteria [of parents wanting their children to attend “elite” institutions] is the belief that scarce elite degrees must be highly valuable. Their graduates must enjoy more success because they get a better education and develop better contacts. All that’s plausible—and mostly wrong. “We haven’t found any convincing evidence that selectivity or prestige matters,” says Ernest T. Pascarella of the University of Iowa, co- author of “How College Affects Students,” an 827-page evaluation of hundreds of studies of the college experience. Selective schools don’t systematically employ better instructional approaches than less-selective schools, according to a study by Pascarella and George Kuh of Indiana University. Some do; some don’t. On two measures—professors’ feedback and the number of essay exams—selective schools do slightly worse. ...

Kids count more than their colleges. Getting into Yale may signify intelligence, talent and ambition. But it’s not the only indicator and, paradoxically, its significance is declining. The reason: so many similar people go elsewhere. Getting into college isn’t life’s only competition. In the next competition—the job market, graduate school—the results may change.

At another end of the spectrum, Prof. Karlson takes note of Richard Vedder’s report that his colleagues at Ohio University have voted themselves a reduced teaching load without a lot of public accountability; quoth Vedder:

In 1960, the teaching load in the OU economics department was 12 hours a week When I started work in the mid 1960’s, it was already reduced to 9 hours. In 1967, in moving to the quarter system, we reduced it to eight hours. Now, it is the equivalent of 6.7 hours, a 44 percent reduction in roughly 44 years. That is not at all atypical. Quality liberal arts colleges these days very often have a 6 hour load—two three hour courses per semester. Top research universities have still lower loads.

When my department voted to go from six courses a year (two per quarter) to five, it essentially eliminated at least 10 classes a year from being taught. To make up for that, my department could have hired two professors, at a cost of perhaps $200,000 a year (counting fringe benefits). Or, it could turn away more kids from classes needed to graduate, increasing the length of their education and thus the cost of it. Or, it could increase average class size. In fact, it is probably doing a combination of all three of these, for example, adding one professor at a total cost of perhaps $100,000.

Why are they doing this? Supposedly, to increase the research output of the faculty. My prediction is the departmental output of articles may rise from 15 to 16 or 17 a year – roughly 10 percent. Is it worth $100,000, bigger classes, and more closing out of students in classes to publish perhaps two more papers per year, each one of which will probably be read by a best a few dozen readers? Is anyone doing a cost-benefit analysis of the advantages of this move? The answer, of course, is no. Universities simply do what they want, namely the things they like (writing papers which help get faculty promoted and tenured), rather than the things the public that is paying the bills thinks is most important, teaching students. No one is accountable, the decisions are hidden from the public, and the returns on many of those decisions are very low in relation to the costs.

Karlson concurs in part and dissents in part:

Is it the number of articles, or the quality of the articles? Will the Economics faculty use the reassigned time to polish their work so as to make it more attractive to Journal of Political Economy or Economic Inquiry or Economics Letters, or will they simply be ensuring that Rivista Internazionale Numere Due di Bovini will be able to meet its production schedules? If the latter, perhaps the decision will inefficiently allocate resources. But what’s special about the former journals? Publish in the former journals and your department moves up in the disciplinary league tables. Why does that matter? Because the league tables color the impression observers have of the prestige of a university. So what? People engage in positional arms races to get into universities with a lot of prestige.

Ultimately, then, the responsibility is on the public to quit spending money on getting their kids into “prestige” universities with brilliant research faculties that spend no time with undergraduates, particularly not with freshmen, and on the public to quit recruiting their entry-level employees from those universities. But until there are changes in those behaviors, it is not an error on the part of the Ohio faculty of Economics to offer working conditions more like those prevailing at the “prestige” campuses. Ohio might secure a recruiting advantage thereby, and some Ohio faculty might publish work that attracts the attention of a department higher up the academic food chain.

Note that “people” in the arms race are not just students but also faculty; the preordained superstars (and occasionally those who manage to publish their way out of the ghetto) go where the teaching load is lowest—and, since they’re the superstars, their pay is the highest. This is rational behavior for a department seeking to attract bright young faculty to a place more known for its reputation as a party school than its research output, and (indirectly) to create upward pressure on salaries for the department’s faculty—after all, if OU needs to attract bright young faculty, they’ll have to pay market rates for that labor, and concerns about salary compression and fairness to the longtimers will ensure everyone else gets paid too.

Everyone wins—well, except the public, who will be, over the long term, paying more money for less work, and the students, who will see the shortfall in offerings filled by adjunctification or auditoriumization of classes, or an extended undergraduate career spent chasing classroom space in the major and gen-ed distribution requirements while padding the required courseload in the meantime with filler.


Any views expressed in these comments are solely those of their authors; they do not reflect the views of the authors of Signifying Nothing, unless attributed to one of us.
[Permalink] 1. Anonymous Early Grad Student wrote @ Wed, 30 Aug 2006, 9:00 am CDT:

So how do you get to be a preordained superstar, anyway?


It’d probably help to have an existing superstar who’s willing to publish with you as your advisor, for starters.

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