Why Public Education Should Be Free

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Robert Samuels. Why Public Education Should Be Free. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013.

Robert Samuels is a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and the author of the Changing Universities blog, as well as several books in the area of cultural studies.

For this book, I would have preferred a slightly different title. Samuels doesn’t come to discuss his proposal for free public universities until Chapter 9, and the rest of the book has much to offer readers who may not agree with his ultimate recommendations. Mostly it is a book about how tuition hikes and cost-cutting are shortchanging college students. In Samuels’ view, they are paying more and getting less. If that is true, it’s a matter of concern for everyone.

I also wish that the book had been longer, with more supporting research. Although it is heavily footnoted, I would have appreciated more extensive research summaries to support some of the crucial conclusions. In particular, how much a university can both control costs and maintain quality is a very difficult question, especially because a high-quality educational experience is an elusive goal. Samuels maintains that it can be done, but that public universities are generally failing to do it. I think he makes a good prima facie case, but more research would help make the argument fully convincing.

Samuels begins Chapter 1 with his main charge:

Every year, tuition at American colleges and universities goes up, but virtually no one seems to know why. In fact, the average cost of higher education in the United States increases at twice the rate of inflation, and by going up 8 percent each year, the cost of tuition doubles every nine years. Meanwhile, educational institutions claim that they are losing money and that they have to rely increasingly on large lecture classes and inexpensive, untenured faculty in order to remain afloat.  In other words, the cost is going up, but the money spent on undergraduate education is going down. And once again, no one appears to have a coherent explanation for this state of affairs.

Part of the explanation is that state funding has been falling for public education since 1980. However, Samuels reports that despite this, the revenue generated by state funding and tuition combined far exceeds the amounts actually spent on undergraduate education. By considering such factors as class size, number of classes per student and the compensation for different categories of teachers, he estimates the direct instructional cost at $2,656 per student, far less than the average $7,000 tuition plus $8,000 in state funding received by public universities. Research by Charles Schwartz on the University of California found the average instructional cost to be $3,330, and the non-instructional costs attributable to undergraduate education (such as libraries, student services, administration and utilities) to be another $6,817, for a total of $10,147. But the tuition and public support was so much higher, that “the university was still making about $10,000 on each student.”

At the same time as they have been raising tuition, universities have been saving a lot of money by increasing average class size and turning over more of the undergraduate teaching to lower-paid part-time instructors, graduate students, and other non-tenure-track faculty (that is, faculty with no prospect of a permanent position).

“A common annual course load for a student at an American research university is six large classes (averaging 200 students each) and two small courses (averaging 20 students each).” Obviously, classes of 200 only require one-tenth the professional staffing as classes of 20. If that tends to make education too impersonal, universities mitigate the damage by breaking the large class into small discussion sections conducted by graduate teaching assistants. One hour a week taught by a graduate student is much less expensive than three hours a week taught by a professor.

I might add that as a first-year grad student at the University of Pittsburgh, I was assigned to attend a large-lecture class and teach three discussion sections each week. The discussion sections themselves usually had over 30 students. The graduate assistants also constructed and graded the exams. Although I’m sure many students managed to learn something and receive a fair grade, I think the arrangement left much to be desired.

The percentage of undergraduate classes taught by traditional tenure-track faculty has fallen to about one-third. Another third are taught by part-time faculty and the remaining third by other non-tenure-track faculty. Many–although not all–of the latter two groups are less credentialed and experienced than the tenured faculty. On the other hand, Samuels also complains that many of the tenured faculty received tenure more on the basis of their research and publications than their teaching ability. One of his recommendations is to reward different kinds of professors for doing what they do best. Free great researchers from teaching undergraduates if they’re not good at it, but improve pay and job security for more undergraduate teachers who are.

That raises the question of how effectively universities and their customers evaluate undergraduate instruction.

A central explanation for why research universities have been able to get away with shortchanging instruction–as they pursue other areas of interest–is that there is little effective instructional quality control in higher education. Not only are there no shared tests for all universities to see if students are actually learning their course material, but many universities evaluate professors based on their research and not on their teaching, which means that a professor can have a long history of being an ineffective teacher with no negative repercussions.

The reputations and ratings of public universities don’t seem to depend very much on the quality of undergraduate instruction. This is partly because the quality of the classroom experience isn’t as visible as other things colleges provide. “When students and their parents go on college tours, much of the information given them relates to noneducational topics like housing, parking, dining, fraternities, athletic facilities, and entertainment options.” Universities can boost their ratings by providing misleading statistics. They can inflate the amount they spend per student by including graduate and professional students in the average instead of focusing on undergraduates. They can exaggerate the percentage of full-time faculty by not counting untenured instructors as faculty. They can underestimate typical class size by reporting the percentage of classes that are small instead of the percentage of student credit hours that are actually earned in small classes. (To understand the last difference, consider this analogy. The US has a large number of small towns and a smaller number of big cities, but a large majority of the people actually live in the big cities. Similarly, university undergraduates spend most of their time in the big classes.)

One statistic that plays a special role in evaluating universities is the average SAT scores of admitted students. A university may spend a lot on attracting far more applicants than it can admit, so it can be as selective as possible. It may also spend a lot on generous financial aid offers to high-SAT students, who tend to come from wealthy families. Meanwhile, students of more typical financial means and ability have to manage the increased costs of their education by going deeply into debt, if they can get into their public university at all.

Samuels summarizes:

Although tuition has been going up at a high rate during the last thirty years, the use of large classes and nontenured faculty has actually pushed the costs of instruction down. It is therefore false for many universities to claim that they are losing money on each student; the truth is that they are often making a huge profit off of each undergraduate. What research universities do not want to disclose is that the inexpensive undergraduates are subsidizing expensive graduate students, administrators, and researchers.

If public universities are shortchanging undergraduates, it is not because of sheer incompetence or indifference. It is because of other priorities.


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