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 Student-to-Faculty Ratios

There are a lot of metrics or methods of measuring what we do in higher education. An important one for us professors is faculty full-time equivalent (FTE), which is a percentage calculation of a single faculty member’s teaching. In other words, an FTE of 1.0 represents a full-time professor. Two people hired half-time would also be 1.0. At my institution and system, it is primarily based on teaching load. In my case, teaching my full 4/4 load is represented as 1.0 in a spreadsheet. In that spreadsheet, there is also a tally of all faculty to get an overall number of faculty FTE, which is 428.61 for Fall 2019. This is also done for students and staff as well as using other formulas for measuring the notion of full-time.

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Overworked (the pandemic version)

Previously, I’ve written about my workload. As I begin to prepare for Fall 2020, I’ve been thinking about how I can design classes that will avoid the COVID chaos of Spring 2020.

Like everyone else, my time commitment to my classes increased dramatically once we went online due to the COVID-19 closures and quarantine in the spring. In addition to all the work needed to convert my face-to-face classes online, there were other issues. Rather than have a relatively set schedule for work, we moved into a 24/7 environment that has broken apart our already porous academic work and non-academic lives.

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Overworked? Analyzing my workload

So I teach a lot. I teach an average of 254 students per semester without the help of teaching assistants (at the time this was written). I’m sure there are other others who have to do the same. In this blog post, I’m going to take a look at staffing at my institution.

While I’m not the only person who teaches such large student loads, such loads are not normal. In fact, my institution advertises an 18:1 student-to-faculty ratio. However, that number does not represent actual faculty teaching load. Even as a measure of class size there are problems. Looking at the Office of Institutional Research’s “Credit Hours Generated by Department” report, and dividing credit hours generated by faculty FTE, we get a students-per-semester average of about 88 students. This is a better estimate of how much “teaching work” a professor has per semester. This means the average faculty member teaches about 88 students across all their course load each semester (which is a bit larger than the 18:1 ratio).

Am I just an outlier?  Using the Credit Hours Report and the university’s annual factbook, it appears that some departments are more likely to have faculty teaching well above that 88 student average. Faculty in my department (anthropology & sociology) as well as those in business, math, and the other social sciences (especially psychology and criminal justice) generally teach more students per semester that those in other fields. So, my teaching load is impacted by department-level expectations from the administration, as well as staffing (which is an administrative decision).

Is my institution understaffed? Is that why I have to teach a lot of students? According to the above chart, we see that current faculty staffing is about where it was in 2002/2003 – before a massive boom in enrollment and hiring.  As I suggested earlier, some departments teach more undergraduates than others. So, this suggests that the problem is not necessarily university-wide staffing, but department-level staffing. ***Of course, this could be under the potentially false assumption that my institution was adequately staffed at 2002/2003 enrollment levels.

Compared to other institutions, we do not rely on as much adjunct labor due to our collective bargaining agreement. This is a good thing. However, this does mean that in the absence of a large number of adjuncts as well as fewer tenure track hires, existing faculty need to teach more. At the same time, we do employ adjuncts who are paid substantially less than tenure-line faculty for comparable work. Yet, it is a bit of a mystery why some departments get adjuncts and why others do not. It certainly is not based on student load – teaching or major count.

So maybe there’s a bias? I have found that (generally) departments with faculty that teach more students per term are more racially/ethnically diverse. This isn’t surprising given that the social sciences, math, and business are the departments with faculty that do a lot of heavy lifting – for general education as well as having large major counts. These are also fields that – according to the Survey of Earned Doctorates – are somewhat diverse (although this depends on the specialty/subfield). This is reflected in our students. Students of color represent 40% of my program’s majors. 27% of our majors are women of color. Are more diverse departments/programs understaffed due to some form of bias?

*** For the record, I see this as an outcome of an institutional problem rather than individual bias/shortsightedness. More on this in another blog post.

Wrapping up, I’m glad I’m on sabbatical this fall. I’ll miss my students, but I won’t miss all the course preparation and grading that I have to do.