The Problem With College Teaching Is The Inefficiency, Not Short Hours

This op-ed suggesting that the problem of ever-rising higher education costs could be solved by making professors teach more course-hours per week seems to be mostly based on a fairly silly error. There may be something to the idea that we should revisit the relatively long vacation periods in both college and K-12 education, but the argument that “faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week” is the problem ignores the fact that a lot of additional hours of out-of-classroom work go into each hour of classroom teaching. The basic issue isn’t that professors are lazy, it’s that they’re working unproductively. As you can see above, real output per employed person in the United States has skyrocketed over the decades even as annual hours worked per employed person has fallen.

That’s how you make progress, not by “working harder” but by working more productively. Journalists, for example, can write articles much more quickly in 2012 than was possible in 1962. It’s much easier to edit text on computer than on typewriter, it’s much faster to find phone numbers on the Internet than by flipping through paper books, it’s much easier to leave messages for people or see what calls you’ve missed, it’s possible to communicate with sources and colleagues via email and IM, you can look data up on FRED, and so forth. Professors have access to most of these same tools and they use them and relates technologies to conduct their research much more efficiently (looking up old articles on JSTOR instead of digging through a library, collaborating with coauthors in other cities over email) but they haven’t succeeded in becoming much more efficient at teaching.

There’s lots of other stuff always happening in the higher ed space—state budget issues, fads in administration, a lot of expenditures on upgraded dorms—but this is the basic shape of the problem. As a society we’ve gotten more efficient at producing automobiles and newspaper articles and computers and individual quick-frozen vegetables but we haven’t really gotten much more efficient at teaching stuff. Consequently, a larger and larger share of overall national resources are dedicating to teaching college students and K-12 students alike. If we someday solve this problem, the upshot will be a huge reduction in the aggregate person-hours dedicated to college-level instruction (similar to the endless depressing rounds of layoffs that have afflicted the journalism industry) not an increase. Whether that leaves professors with more time for research or simply leads to unemployment will depend on what donors care to pay for.