Report: Declining Teaching Loads Contribute to Growing College Costs

One way of tackling the increasing cost of college education would be to reverse the trend of declining teaching loads as described in a recent report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and Education Sector. Titled Selling Students Short: Declining Teaching Loads at Colleges and Universities, the report argues that while faculty salaries compromise the biggest part of college spending, their workload has consistently gone down for decades.

It's difficult to get accurate information about teaching loads since the only recent survey conducted on the issue by the Department of Education provides no detail and only has aggregate data available to the public via its Data Analysis System. Not only is the information for a particular university impossible to obtain, there's also a simple paucity of data since the survey has only been conducted four times since 1987 and not once since 2004.

The DAS figures reveal that across all tenured and tenure-track faculty, the average number of classes taught per term declined from 3.6 in 1987-1988 to 2.7 in 2003-2004, a 25 percent decline. The national averages obscure significant differences among various types of universities, but as Figure 1 shows, teaching loads (defined as the average number of courses taught in the fall term [semester or quarter]) have fallen substantially across the board. Indeed, the decline has been so widespread that, on average, professors at liberal arts colleges, which traditionally prioritized teaching, taught less in 2003-2004 than professors at research universities did in 1987-1988.

The authors speculate that the decline is due in part to colleges and universities prioritizing research and publication over teaching. This assertion is borne out by the data released by the Modern Language Association, which found that the number of departments that rank scholarship as a primary motivator in hiring decisions has more than doubled between 1968 and 2007.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty doing less teaching than they used to has an impact on the school's bottom line. Lectures, after all, still have to be delivered, and schools spend additional money hiring adjuncts or increasing section sizes to accommodate all the students.

Without better data, we cannot tell how often colleges and universities choose these different options, nor can we tell what the total effect of a decline in teaching loads is on the institution's budget. But using DAS and IPEDS data, we can examine one aspect of the total effect: option (d), hiring a full-time professor to teach the course. This is likely to be a reasonable and conservative estimate of the total increase in costs since options (a) and (b) do not increase costs at all, and option (c) increases costs only marginally because adjuncts are generally paid a low salary.

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