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Economist's study links tuition, faculty workload

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Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

Full-time professors at the nation's largest research universities teach fewer classes, driving up the cost of tuition, a study concludes.

Economist Andrew Gillen, its author, projected that public research universities including Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh — for which state subsidies have plummeted by tens of millions of dollars in recent years — could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue if each full-time professor taught one more class per semester.

“We have for some time been outraged that, whenever there is a drop in state appropriations, the only recourse for public universities has been to take it out on the students with higher tuition. ... This is where we begin to explode that argument,” said Michael Poliakoff, vice president of the nonprofit American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which sponsored the study with the Education Sector.

Officials at Penn State disputed the report's findings, asserting faculty workloads have been constant for a decade.

“We have tracked workload and our resources pretty closely at Penn State for a number of years. ... We do see it as an issue of employing scarce resources responsibly to get the university's work done effectively and efficiently,” said spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

Pitt officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Gillen concluded that research universities could have avoided just more than half of tuition increases between 1988 and 2004 had faculty courseloads not declined from an average of 3.6 classes per semester to 2.7 per semester. Although the data are the most current available, the report offers anecdotal evidence that the trend continues.

Poliakoff said tenured faculty typically teach two or fewer courses a semester at many research schools. Penn State was featured in an academic journal two years ago after boosting teaching requirements in its English Department, requiring professors to teach two classes a semester with 25 students each.

Higher teaching loads would allow more students to be taught with the same number of professors without boosting costs, Gillen wrote.

He estimated Penn State could generate $225.3 million from new in-state students if each of 1,748 professors taught one more class per semester. At Pitt, such a move would create an extra 1,557 classes and generate another $166 million in tuition.

The report said teaching responsibilities declined in recent decades as schools began emphasizing faculty research.

Officials at Penn State maintain that trend lowered the cost of instruction because research grants offset a portion of faculty salaries, allowing the university to tap the difference to hire instructors to take up the slack.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Ronald Tomalis, secretary of the state Department of Education, suggested universities need to do more with less state money when they slashed state subsidies two years ago. But they hesitated to endorse Gillen's conclusions.

“While it appears that, according to the report, additional revenues could be realized, it's somewhat challenging to say for certain, without knowing how each university operates on a day-to-day basis as well as how each university manages their faculty members' courseload,” Education Department spokesman Timothy Eller said, adding that faculty research often provides opportunities for students.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. she can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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