Efficiency isn’t necessary Efficient in HigherEd

Here’s a follow up to my previous post about student-to-faculty ratios not being related to university finances. I recently asked an administrator if the ratio is a proxy for revenues and expenditures. I was told that the ratio is actually a measure of efficiency.

For my more critical readers, I can hear the groans upon hearing the word “efficiency.” No doubt efficiency is a very corporate term and a stand-in for return on investment. Stepping aside from the very corporate dimensions of that word, efficiency also refers to the relationship between inputs (e.g. resources) to outputs (e.g. a task or function). For example, efficiency can be reducing the amount of energy needed to light up a house. Yet, even from a technical standpoint, efficiency is full of contradictions. Jevon’s Paradox occurs when improvements in energy efficiency lead to more consumption. This increased consumption offsets the potential benefits of “efficiency.” In other words, the technocratic push for efficiency often ignores the real-world deployment of such tools and strategies.

Real-world consequences can be relatively minor like leaving your lights on more since you have energy-efficient bulbs. However, the push for efficiency has had negative consequences in other ways. Edward Tenner (2018) has written about the Efficiency Paradox, noting that efficiency is rooted as much in “racism and xenophobia as in technological idealism” (xii). The reason being efficiency often comes from the top without regard to the social consequences of deploying formulas to optimize whatever those in power want to make efficient. For example, metrics to optimize “safety” can lead to segregation and discrimination in mortgage lending.

What does this mean in education? Is a faculty member teaching more students per class more efficient? Well if efficient means cheaper, then yes. However, what sort of consequences come with that? Retention and graduation rates come to mind. This is especially going to be costly for first-generation, those with disabilities, LGBTQ, non-traditional, and students of color. They need a diverse faculty who can provide mentorship and a safe space for them throughout their careers. As such, an efficiency metric solely based on increasing class sizes might not solve the financial problems caused by decreased enrollment. Then, of course, we are now in the world of COVID-19. Larger classes can limit options for physical distancing.

I conclude with this final thought on metrics. Our system has other metrics for financial sustainability they are not using. For instance, they have “Education and General (E&G) Expenditures per Student FTE.” This is a bit better since we are back to talking about actual finances. However, there’s a political component. When they propose they are increasing the student-to-faculty ratio, they are saying they want to spend less per student. This E&G metric would confirm that. The optics here are very different than suggesting a ratio of 20:1. I believe that this is why they chose this problematic student-to-faculty metric, versus more accurate ones for examining financial sustainability.