By Andrew Kerr
Higher-paid professors at research universities spend less time instructing undergraduate students compared to their lower-paid counterparts.
The trend is a direct consequence of universities incentivizing professors to prioritize research over instructing students.
Professors skilled at research are rewarded with higher pay and a lower teaching load, according to a 2017 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“[H]ighly-paid faculty within a department do relatively little teaching on average,” the paper found, adding that the little instruction performed by highly-compensated professors is typically “complimentary with research.”
“The university pays these faculty well because they are especially good at research,” the paper adds. “It makes perfect sense that they would also have relatively low teaching loads.”
As reported by The Daily Caller News Foundation, undergraduate students may be shouldering the cost of academic research due to an accounting convention that allows universities to “disguise” research as an instructional expense.
Considering that faculty pay makes up on average two-thirds of total instructional costs at American research universities, the impact of classifying faculty research activities as an instructional cost could have a substantial impact on tuition rates.
Oklahoma State University professor Vance Fried believes that up to 40 percent of reported instructional costs at research-intensive universities may be hidden research expenditures.
In addition to shouldering the cost of research in the form of higher tuition, undergraduate students may also be negatively affected in the classroom.
Quantity doesn’t equal quality
Research serves an important function, as scientific breakthroughs and new technologies have helped give America her competitive edge.
But more research doesn’t guarantee better research, as noted by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein, who says a “publish-or-perish” mentality has gripped professors at American research universities.
According to Bauerlein, research productivity in the field of language and literature has exploded in the past five decades, with output rising from 13,000 to 72,000 scholarly publications per year.
Bauerlein points to the excessive level of focus the academic community places on William Shakespeare as an example. Some 21,674 scholarly publications on the English poet were published in a 26-year period between 1980 and 2006. What more can be said about Shakespeare?
And who’s teaching undergraduates while professors are busy hammering out the 21,675th study on Shakespeare?
The seismic shift in focus from instruction to research may help explain why universities have grown increasingly reliant on non-tenure-track contingent faculty like adjunct professors to pick up the slack.
By 2013, contingent faculty swelled to 50 percent of the academic workforce at public research universities, according to a 2016 Delta Cost Project study. Contingent faculty are a much cheaper commodity, earning between 26 and 64 percent less than their tenure and tenure-track counterparts.
Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, told TheDCNF that university administrators are glad to push the burden of teaching onto lower-cost contingent faculty to allow tenure and tenure-track professors more time to engage in research.
And there’s plenty of research to go around. Universities spent roughly $54 billion on externally funded research in 2016 alone.
Universities claim research increases the quality of instruction
The National Association of College and University Business Officers defended the practice of shifting research costs onto students in a 2002 report, arguing that the “integration of research and education is a major strength of the nation’s colleges and universities and directly benefits undergraduates.”
But that claim is not supported by the facts.
A 2004 meta-analysis of studies found a “close to zero” relationship between research acumen and teaching quality.
“Good researchers are neither more nor less likely to be effective teachers than are poor researchers,” the study found.
“[I]f students want to be taught by outstanding teachers, they need to focus on measures of teaching effectiveness rather than reputations based on research performances,” the study advised.
And graduation rates may also drop as professors forego time in the classroom to spend more time researching, a 2009 Institute of Labor Economics study found.
The study’s authors, Douglas Webber and Ronald Ehrenberg, found it “disturbing” that higher levels of research spending at American universities appeared to come with the baggage of lower graduation rates.
What does this mean for undergraduate students?
The impact academic research has on undergraduate tuition is an often-overlooked aspect of the rising costs of higher education.
Research universities consistently enroll about 60 percent of all undergraduates at public 4-year institutions, according to Demos. These institutions carry the highest sticker price in terms of tuition and fees, which continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation.
Prospective students are lured to research universities under the guise that they’ll be taught by the top professors in the field. But the reality is that the most skilled and highest paid professors are given the go-ahead by administrators to offload their undergraduate teaching duties to lower-paid adjunct professors, leaving undergraduate students in the dust.
Numerous studies have shown that undergraduate students bear the cost of pervasive “publish-or-perish” mentality in higher education results in the form of higher tuition, larger class sizes and higher student-faculty ratios.