The Tragedy of the Commons

Previously, I blogged about efficiency in our system having a potentially racist dimension (see: Tenner, 2018). One of the consequences of the efficiency push is that libraries are under threat. There is a chance one or more campuses could not have a library and/or any librarians due to cuts. There are going to be some real serious academic and social consequences to this. In sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People (2018), libraries are examples of social infrastructure – the physical places and entities that have a direct impact on how people. As Klinenberg points out: “Social infrastructures that promote efficiency tend to discourage interaction and the formation of strong ties.” (p. 18). One of the things administrators fail to understand is that libraries do many things. They are community centers, meeting spaces, places to study, and more. They provide jobs for student workers (which I had as an undergrad). They can even house coffee shops, where people get together. Libraries can be safe spaces for homeless students. This is in addition to their being hubs of academic activity for faculty, students, and the wider community.

Our administrators argue that “library services” will still exist. Yet, they have no plan of what that might mean. We cannot disconnect those “services” from the social and physical dimensions of university libraries. That includes the integral nature of librarians in providing those services. Take, for instance, the transition of libraries into “information commons” in recent years. Key here is the idea that they are “commons.” Again, they are places where students can work together, with librarians, or faculty for a variety of different projects.

In sum, the destruction of libraries in PASSHE would be a true “tragedy of the commons.”

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.

Criticizing Return-on-Investment Approach to Degrees in PA

A version of this post appears in the APSCUF-KU May 2016 Newsletter.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania’s System of Higher Education (PASSHE) issued a press release on a report entitled Degrees of Value. This report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce will become part of the State System’s “Program Alignment Toolkit.” Looking at undergraduate degrees and income, the report essentially takes a return-on-investment (ROI) approach to college degrees. In PASSHE’s press release, it noted that: “While college-educated employees in any field tend to earn more than those with only a high school education, the college majors that lead to the highest earnings are in STEM, health and business. For example, a major in architecture and engineering, the highest-paying area of STEM, led to average earnings of $82,500 in Pennsylvania.”

The ROI approach to undergraduate programs is highly problematic and often criticized. Not only are there problems with its logic, it is typically used as an attack on the arts and humanities. APSCUF, the union representing faculty in the PASSHE system, has issued its statement on the report. However, I would like to offer my thoughts on the report. I do not find the results of the report particularly surprising. What is disconcerting is that the document lacks nuance even when using a ROI rationale and the report’s own data.

Take for example the state average for students who majored in the humanities and liberal arts. Median earnings for a humanities and liberal arts major between the ages of 12-64 is $45,300 statewide. However, a humanities and liberal arts major in the Southeast region of the state makes $49,900, which is more than a biology and life science major living in the Northwest region of the state ($46,400) and pretty close to a biology major in the Southwest region ($51,000).


Biology & Life Science Humanities & Liberal Arts
Central Region



Northeast Region



Northwest Region



Southeast Region



Southwest Region






Source: Degrees of Value, Figure 14, pages 23-24

The Degrees of Value report only briefly discusses geographic differences. However, it only does so within majors. This is because using income as a benchmark is complicated by significant regional differences in jobs, cost of living, and economic resources. Yet, the report’s focus is solely on income.

PASSHE’s acceptance of the report reinforces faculty fears of a vocational-drive by campus administrators and state leaders. Yet, the data within the report does not support a vocational-drive based on ROI. Students majoring in the social sciences make more than those in fields such as agriculture and natural resources, education, law & public policy, journalism, industrial arts, and social work.

Major Median earnings by undergraduate major group ages 21-64
Social Sciences $52,800
Agriculture & natural resources 50,800
Education 47,800
Law & public policy 46,700
Communications & journalism 43,400
Industrial arts, consumer services & recreation 42,100
Psychology & social work 42,100
Source: Degrees of Value, Figure 12, page 20

In addition to the report’s focus on STEM-H, business majors are a focus. Yet, social science majors in the Southeast Region do better than many business majors across the state.



Social Sciences (excluding psychology and social work)

Central Region



Northeast Region



Northwest Region



Southeast Region



Southwest Region






Source: Degrees of Value, Figure 14, pages 23-24

It is also important to note that nationally, the gap between humanities & social science, and professional & pre-professional fields closes significantly over the course of a worker’s career.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, AAUP.

In conclusion, the equating of undergraduate degree with income is simplistic. It ignores economic geography, labor market dimensions, as well less quantifiable benefits such as career satisfaction, community service, and job security.