It’s time for the debate about reforming higher education in Texas to move past disparaging professors or demonizing reformers, so we can capitalize on ways to improve the learning and research at our Texas universities.
By Jeff Sandefer
The cost of a college degree is too high, and our graduates are not as well prepared for productive and meaningful lives as they should be. It seems everyone agrees on this. Plus, our universities should be producing world-changing research in the sciences, humanities, and elsewhere.
The problem is that our universities have become too complex and unwieldy, with complicated missions, bloated administrative costs, and limited effectiveness. If you read Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s recently released The Innovative University, which traces the DNA of modern academia, you’ll see how several hundred years of well-intended efforts—with unintended consequences—have left us with a bureaucratic higher-education system that is in dire need of reform.
Christensen and Eyring are serious and respectful in tone, but make it clear that a tsunami of change is sweeping across higher education. It is a wave of economic disruption that means extraordinary opportunities for universities that embrace far-reaching changes, and grave risks for those who do not.
The lack of teaching and research productivity in today’s universities is not the fault of professors and administrators, who are merely reacting to perverse incentives. But those incentives can be changed in a way that will allow our Texas universities to improve the quality of a college education; reduce costs and increase access; and focus and strengthen research in the sciences, humanities, and other disciplines.
Improving the Quality of Education
I believe that education has four jobs, or questions that it should help a student answer:
- Who am I and why am I here?
- What skills do I need and which skill should I master?
- Who will affirm me and hold me accountable?
- How can I prove what I can do?
If these are the right deliverables, our universities are failing. First, we have removed the question of values almost entirely from an undergraduate education. Second, employers and graduates alike complain that we are not delivering 21st century skills, much less helping students discover which skills they are specially equipped for. Third, grade inflation and a lack of results-based management have failed to hold students accountable, and surveys suggest that students feel increasingly distant from teachers. And finally, a college degree shows little proof of what an individual graduate can contribute to the world.
If you closely examine the undergraduate classroom of 2011, you will see far too many teachers with poor to mediocre pedagogy. Professors are too frequently lecturing from PowerPoint slides, an ineffective way to deliver skills or help students find their purpose in life. It is time to start attracting and rewarding a new generation of course designers—many from outside academia—who can create transformational courses and inspire teachers to deliver them in a cost-effective way.
The following four changes would greatly improve the quality of undergraduate teaching:
- Offer campus-wide courses to inspire students to ask the “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” questions, so as many as possible leave college pursuing a purposeful and productive life, full of meaning.
- Make explicit promises to deliver the skills that graduates need in each major and begin to take student and employer satisfaction seriously. Recognize and reward teachers who can create and deliver courses that deliver on these promises.
- Take steps to curb grade inflation and provide students with mentors or coaches who can provide accountability and affirmation.
- Introduce portfolios of a student’s work that showcase skills, highlight passions, and provide proof of what a graduate can do.
Nothing is as important as improving the quality of a college education. While a cheap, ineffective education is better than an expensive, ineffective one, simply reducing costs is not a path to preparing our next generation for productive and meaningful lives.
If our universities shift to a results-based culture, and reward teachers for creating innovative courses and delivering on explicit promises to students, the quality of a college education will improve dramatically.
Reducing Cost and Increasing Access
Our universities have become increasingly complex bureaucracies, with complicated missions and poor measurement systems. As a result, the cost of an undergraduate education has soared.
To put it bluntly, the bureaucracy is spending more energy on protecting and reproducing the professoriate than it is teaching undergraduates. Too many resources are being poured into too many PhD programs that produce graduates who can no longer find jobs in academia, because tenure-track positions are being replaced by low-paid adjuncts and teaching assistants.
And far too many highly paid professors are teaching far too few students, when there is no proof that small classes, in and of themselves, deliver superior learning.
The table below compares the 1,000 Most Productive Teachers and 1,000 Least Productive Teachers out of 4,000 teachers at the University of Texas at Austin. Productivity is based on the cost per student per class taught, after subtracting from a teacher’s compensation the external research funds contributed by a teacher.
This table is not meant to disparage anyone, as the relative performance is largely a result of the incentives built into the current system. Nevertheless, the Most Productive 1,000 Teachers are paid one third as much for teaching five times as many students. In other words, the Most Productive 1,000 Teachers are seventeen times more productive than the Least Productive 1,000 Teachers.
The issue is not that poorly paid adjuncts are teaching large classes—the 220 students per year taught by the average productive teacher is the equivalent of four classes per semester of 37 students each. The real problem is that highly paid professors are teaching such small classes—on average 6.9 students per class, and only 44 students a year .
To put this productivity gap into perspective, an undergraduate degree delivered solely by the least productive teachers would cost $406,381, while a degree delivered solely by the most productive teachers would cost less than $12,000.
To bring the cost of a college degree to a level that most Texans can afford, we must do the following:
- Design high-quality blended classes (online plus face-to-face) that can deliver learning in basic courses for less than $100 per student, far more effectively than a classroom-based lecture delivered from PowerPoint slides.
- Use improved course designs and incentives for tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty to increase the average class size for most teachers, to well above 7 students a class, while increasing the amount of learning delivered.
- Copy schools like BYU-Idaho that have gone to a year-round, three-semester schedule, with more fully utilized facilities, so that the number of students can be increased to lower the fixed costs per degree.
With a better delivery system and more fully utilized facilities, current tuition rates can be slashed and more students served, while increasing the quality of the learning delivered.
Strengthening and Focusing Research
Academic research is important for the reputation of top universities. One of the most important criteria to be considered a Tier One school is the amount of external research funding granted to a university.
At the University of Texas at Austin, 10% of the faculty—approximately 400 out of 4,000 individual teachers—bring in over 90% of the external research funding. If Texas universities want to attract more external research funding, we need to put incentives in place to greatly increase the small number of highly productive research faculty who are bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in external research funds to our universities.
Changing the incentives to reward scientific research faculty would attract world-class researchers from all across the world, particularly at a time when many universities are facing cutbacks.
Much of our university research in Texas is internally funded—meaning it is subsidized by tuition and taxpayer money. Research in the humanities and other areas that are not financed by external research funds can be critical to advancing civilization. But currently there are massive internal subsidies without any transparent way to measure costs or prioritize research.
A budget that sets limits on subsidies from taxpayers and tuition and a transparent system that sets priorities need to be high priorities, particularly since polls suggest that such research is not a high priority for Texas taxpayers, students, or parents.
A Call to Action
A tsunami of disruptive change is coming to higher education. This presents a tremendous opportunity for our Texas universities to create a 21st century model for higher education. We simply must reinvent our Texas universities to improve the quality of education; reduce costs and increase access; and focus and strengthen research.
The citizens of Texas believe that preparing students for productive and meaningful lives should be the top priority for our public universities. In our major research universities, we also need to increase externally funded research so our universities move higher in the academic rankings. Important internally funded research in the humanities and other areas should be prioritized and funded too.
All of this makes it critical that disparaging professors or educational reformers is a political pastime that we cannot afford. Nor can we tolerate leaders in higher education who make vague promises or stonewall fundamental reforms. The status quo simply is no longer an option.
A shift to a results-based culture in our Texas universities is the best way to deliver on promises to graduates and taxpayers and leapfrog more prestigious universities in the rankings. It’s time to recognize and reward our best teachers and researchers, and attract more talented faculty to Texas from all over the globe.