The Single Most Important Question on Any College Campus Tour

The Obamas haven’t yet had the chance to ask it.

malia obama looking for a college.
Malia Obama, above in June 2015, has reportedly toured the campuses of at least a dozen top U.S. schools.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

As first daughter Malia Obama’s college application process continues to grip the nation, we’re left to speculate about what, exactly, Malia wants in an institution of higher learning. She has reportedly toured the campuses of at least a dozen of the top schools in the country, usually accompanied by friends and not the president or first lady. That makes sense—but it also means that Barack and Michelle Obama have not had the chance to ask the single most important question on any campus tour: “What percentage of the courses here are taught by tenure-line faculty members?”

Now, it is possible that the Obamas, like many Americans, believe that attendance at an elite university automatically means that the people teaching Malia’s courses will be earning the bulk of that extortionate tuition money (anywhere from $100,000 for out-of state costs at UC–Berkeley to $300,000 at NYU). It is possible that the Obamas believe that most, if not all, of Malia’s professors will never have to draw public assistance and will be able to meet with Malia in their own offices. Given the schools’ prestige, one would assume that the Ivy League universities on Malia’s radar—she has toured Brown, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Penn, and Yale—would entrust the scions of privilege and overachievement in their care to the top minds on the faculty roster.

And on first glance, the majority of theses institutions do have fewer than 30 percent of their faculty with so-called nonladder status. (“Ladder” is higher-ed parlance for what one climbs to tenure and beyond.) Let’s start with Brown. Of Brown’s 944 members of the instructional staff, 718—an impressive 76 percent—are ladder faculty. Of the remaining quarter, only 143 of those professors are part-timers—and according to the crowdsourced Adjunct Project, they are generally paid $7,500 to $10,000 per semester-long course, which is three to four times the national average of $2,981.

So far, so good. However, those numbers sour somewhat when one takes into account Brown’s 2,000 or so graduate students. Like most grad students who teach, Brown TAs’ stipends are about $20,000 a year—or, roughly the rate of two adjuncted courses plus a small fellowship. This isn’t criminal compensation or anything, especially given that grad students often receive subsidized health insurance. But it does make one wonder where all that undergrad tuition money goes.

Like Brown, Yale and Princeton also boast fairly low nonladder faculty percentages (28 percent and 30 percent, respectively), but again the story worsens when you consider how their grad-student numbers (6,500 and 2,671, respectively) compare with their faculty (4,140 and 1,221). It is safe to assume that grad students provide a substantial portion of the face-to-face instruction, and again, this isn’t inherently bad—it’s the model large universities have survived on for decades. Those 23-year-old grad students may be gifted young scholars, and sure, they need to learn the trade they probably won’t ever get to practice after they graduate and don’t get jobs. But still: If Princeton grad students earn about $26,000-$32,000 per year, is our hypothetical Malia getting her $228,000 worth?

Of the Ivies to which Malia is reportedly applying, the faculty treatment booby prize actually goes to her father’s alma mater. Columbia only has 423 (out of 1,518) nontenure-eligible faculty outside of the medical school—but they also pay some of those faculty as little as $3,200 per course, which is the New York City equivalent of 12 cents. This is especially disheartening, given that many of these folks (along with graduate teaching assistants) are entrusted with the university’s legendary Core Curriculum. (When I was offered a two-year visiting assistant professorship in Columbia’s German department in 2011, for example, I was going to be farmed out to Core for half of my course load, despite my utterly cursory background in the classics. I took a job at Ohio State instead, and the rest is history.)

The Ivies may also employ even more nonstandard faculty than it first appears, using titles so creative that they don’t figure into the numbers those institutions share with the public. Princeton, for example, hires a crop of desperate new Ph.D.s each year to teach the freshman writing sequence but calls them “precepts.”

Meanwhile, Ivy competitor Stanford, another of Malia’s apparent top contenders, has the Thinking Matters Fellowship, whose fellows provide much of the first-year humanities instruction. Those “postdocs” (the scare quotes are for how teaching-heavy the position is), along with the school’s 9,118 graduate students, help explain Stanford’s much-vaunted 7 percent adjunct faculty. Across the bay, Malia is no better off at UC-Berkeley, where the percentage of full-time faculty is nowhere to be found, and adjuncts are paid $6,000 to $8,000 per course, in a metro area so expensive people Airbnb out the interiors of their cars.

Among the non-Ivy research universities where Malia has toured, the faculty makeup is decidedly worse. Tufts, for example, employs a fairly standard 55.4 percent part-time faculty, whose pay can be as high as $10,000 but as low as $3,000 per course (in Boston). And then there’s higher education’s crying shame, New York University. Ah, NYU: Tuition is so high that the school’s annual fund recently sent around a letter hitting up its own employees to contribute to a scholarship fund so that more “brilliant young minds” can lay out the $75,000 a year necessary for such a “dynamic urban experience.”

Among the recipients of this email? NYU’s adjuncts. They, along with “master teachers” and “faculty fellows” (professors on three-year contracts), make up 50.5 percent of the faculty; those numbers look better than they actually are, thanks to the couple hundred full-timers at the much-maligned cash cow—sorry, satellite campus—in Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, back in the Abu Dhabi of America, NYU adjunct pay is as low as $3,500 per semester-long course. NYU is also famous for its pay inequality: The top ladder faculty are among the best-paid in the nation, and the administrators and superstars got exorbitant subsidized loans on vacation homes for years. All the while, the tenured vote to restrict shared governance to their ever-dwindling ranks.

Perhaps, then, Malia might be better off at one of the two SLACs, or small liberal-arts colleges, where she’s toured: Wesleyan and Barnard. At both of those schools, she would get far more personal attention from actual faculty, virtually all of whom will hold doctorates and boast years of successful teaching experience. But many of those faculty will still be working part-time and for low pay.

Wesleyan, for example, uses fewer adjuncts than the national average of 57 percent (90 part-timers and 238 ladder faculty), and those adjuncts are still paid above the national average, at about $5,000 per course. In ritzy Connecticut, they’d have to shoulder at least a “4-4 load” just for a $40,000-a-year salary—except that that’s not possible, because 4-4 (or more) would be full-time, and then they wouldn’t be on the books as adjuncts. My educated guess is that almost all of them must commute between multiple schools.

That leaves Barnard, which is both the worst and best option for Malia in terms of faculty treatment. On the one hand, 58 percent of Barnard’s faculty is nonladder—an absolutely shameful number for a SLAC. Liberal arts schools are supposed to prize teaching over all, but when those teachers get so little institutional support—and an astonishingly penurious $4,000 per 14-week course, in a borough where the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment tops $3,000 per month—Barnard’s commitment to teaching is disingenuous at best. But, good news: Nonladder faculty at Barnard recently unionized, so they can engage in some much-needed collective bargaining. 

In the end, every institution to which Malia Obama is (reportedly) applying for college—among the very best in the country and thus the world—relies heavily upon poorly paid instructional labor, whether that be part-time adjuncts, grad students, or some unholy combination of the two with a fancy-sounding name. And every one of those institutions charges outrageously high tuition. If I were Malia’s parents, I’d be asking where that money was going. Perhaps if the president and Mrs. Obama start asking the right questions, enough other parents will, too.