Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Public Research University Is Broken

Shortly before my graduation and departure from Texas A&M, I had coffee with President R. Bowen Loftin and a few professors.  Money is, of course, tight, so he gave a run-down of the budget and the university's operations.

Day to day spending on things like professors' salaries and the electric bills comes in roughly equal measure from tuition, the endowment, and the state legislature.  Annual tuition is currently $8,419.  If every student paid full tuition, the university would spend about $25,000 per student per year on its dual mission of teaching and research.

Since, however, 71% of students receive some form of financial aid, we have to adjust that number down.  For argument's sake, let's assume that one third of students receiving aid get it from non-university sources (meaning those monies still flow into the university's coffers like regular tuition), while the other two thirds of aid recipients pay half tuition.  This would pull down the tuition revenue figure to $6,427, and thus the total figure to something in the neighborhood of $19,000 per student per year.

Let us now turn our attention to another school I once attended, the University of Dallas.  Current tuition is $29,140 for a full year.  Since UD is a private school, it does not receive money from the state legislature.  Thus, it must rely on its meager endowment and tuition.  Still, assuming 20% from the endowment and 80% from tuition, that would come to $4,905 and $19,629 (adjusted down for the 98% of students receiving aid), respectively, or $24,500 per student per year.

These numbers are extremely rough - I know I have seen better ones for both schools, but I cannot find them now - but they suggest that UD spends 25-30% more per student than does A&M.  This is notable, but not staggering, and probably within the margin of error for this very crude study.

But if the two schools appear to be in the same ballpark, let me add one more piece of information.  UD has a single primary mission: to educate students.

UD's talented faculty do, in fact, publish in a variety of fields, but no one would claim UD is a research university.  Yet A&M, spending as much money or less, professes to have both excellent teaching and world-class research.  I submit to you that this is an impossibility.

Take note, moreover, that A&M is no fly-by-night, University of Phoenix-style operation.  A&M is a well-respected flagship university of Texas, well ranked in a variety of fields and broadly representative of public research universities across the country.  All of which embrace the dual mission of research and teaching.  I submit to you that they cannot fulfill both, and that teaching as been the loser in this fight.  One need only take a glance at a lecture hall of two or three hundred undergraduates to realize that this is not education; it is mass production.

One might quibble that the figures given by President Loftin over coffee some months ago were for day to day operations, and did not include the big ticket research equipment required by the sciences, or the far-flung travels required by many of the arts, which are funded out of different pots.  Even so, consider that professors at UD teach three or four courses per semester; professors at A&M typically teach two, with course releases common for many junior faculty.  Research requires time and time is paid out of salaries.

What, then, are we to conclude?

I am a supporter of research and I have conducted several archival research trips myself.  These things should continue and our society would do well to find ways to fund them.  Moreover, I believe research can have a positive impact on one's teaching.  However, the case that good research leads to good teaching has been overstated.  Bundling teaching and research together has simply confused the question of where resources are going, a confusion which has often been to teaching's disadvantage.

If you or your children are looking at undergraduate educational institutions, be very skeptical of any school claiming the dual mission of research and teaching.  Perhaps it has a staggering endowment - a few do - and is able to accomplish that dual mission.  But don't count on it.

Admittedly, private education is out of reach for many Americans.  Let me suggest, however, that community and junior colleges often offer education which is every bit as good as the large public institutions, and at a fraction the cost.  ("But what about the opportunity to study under leading scholars in their fields?" some might ask.  "Who taught more of your research school classes," I answer, "graduate students or Nobel laureates?"  A&M has both, but the former do more of the teaching.)

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