How Much of Your College Costs Pay the People Teaching You?

Adjunct educators at Youngstown University in Ohio recently “celebrated” a special occasion: 25 years without a raise. That means that they’ve had the same exact pay since before many of their students were born–potentially, in fact, before some of them were born.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of a year of public university attendance (tuition, fees, room, and board) in 2014-2015 was $18,632. Many of the educators–who must have at least a Master’s degree–who teach these courses earn around $2500 per course and sometimes less. Casual labor comprises the majority of educators at most public universities at this point. Individually, contingent educators are great teachers. However, lack of university support for them in all kinds of ways has corresponds to less effective universities. 

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Above, a chart from the New  York TimesNew  York Times tracking the increased cost of college through 2011. 

For those considering college (and their parents), it’s important to understand what a very small portion of the money you pay goes to support the people who are most important to your college education: your teacher. Every state provides information on public university employees’ wages, but not all tell the full picture. (Yes, it’s true that your state’s highest paid public employee probably coaches football or men’s basketball. And, yes, it’s true that the University of Alabama football coach is the highest paid public employee in the U.S.)

In Arkansas, where I teach, the public university salary database is searchable by name or institution, so you can see everyone at your school. (Because men’s sports are rewarded so well and are almost universally coached by men, only one of the top highest paid employees is a woman. Among the top 25, only 5 are women.) HOWEVER, the database only catalogs those earning more than $37,823 per year–the median income in Arkansas. This hides the immense labor done for low wages (much of it by women) for the university, from administrative assistants and facilities workers. Some of them earn just 16,780 for 12 months of full-employment. Jobs here  with pay in the low $20,000s require a college degree. Even the online budget doesn’t show all the work performed by employees, as it ignores some temporary labor.

Would-be students have a right to know how universities spend–and misspend–their money. Like most college professors, I’m not a fan of austerity measures. I think almost everyone at a university is underpaid. And I’m also very weary of calls for universities to be “run like businesses.” (“Return on investment” is a term I hear flung about a lot at my institution. Given that faculty have to compete against each other–a terrible way to encourage collaboration!–for meager travel and research funds, I’m not sure what “investment is being referenced.) But I find universities’ exploitation of their most vulnerable workers–despite the great cost of tuition and despite the fact that casual labor provides so much for them–to be even more troubling. Businesses–at least not ones that thrive–do not treat their employees with such disdain. Even worse is universities’ and tenured faculty members’ attempt to shift blame to factors beyond their control when they are failing to control the many factors well within their control.

Students deserve to know where their tuition money goes. If you are thinking about being a student (or thinking about taking a job with a higher ed institution), consider these questions:

  1. What percent of courses are taught by tenured or tenure track faculty? What percent of students are taught by them? (Contingent faculty often teach large course sections at low wages, carving out money to pay tenured faculty to teach small classes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with large classes subsidizing smaller, more specialized ones–if the lower wages are fair.) How long is it going to be before you are taught by someone whose job is secure?
  2. How much are the lowest-paid educators paid for their time? I’m less interested in averages, as contingent educators in some fields earn a fair wage. But in fields where the pay is low–the comp I instructor, for example–how much are they earning? As a student, it may surprise you to learn that your teacher isn’t even earning $1 per student per class. That’s right–if they passed around a collection plate and asked for a free-will offering, they’d probably earn more.
  3. What percent of your tuition is paying educator’s salaries and benefits?
  4. What is the wage gap between the lowest paid educator and the highest paid one? Does the highest paid person perform that much more for the mission of the university?
  5. Which educators yield the biggest profit margin for the university? We often hear that the salaries of professors in business and law are higher because, if we didn’t pay them more, they’d move to private enterprise. But how much are they really making for the university? Should the profit they bring in influence their salary? If so, how should the profit brought in by those in the gen ed trenches–of the casual, contract labor who are the first contacts students have with their disciplines–be rewarded? What value should highly paid professors be bringing besides tuition dollars? The highest paid educator in my college doesn’t even teach in a degree with any majors. (All of this is public information, so I’ve got no concern about sharing it. Our general unease about talking about salary is one way we self-inflict low salaries.)
  6. What percent of those in casual positions are women? What is the university doing to stench the leaky pipeline of highly qualified women from tenure track jobs to casual ones?
  7. Is the university doing its part to reverse the national trend of contingent labor? How?

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2 thoughts on “How Much of Your College Costs Pay the People Teaching You?

Add yours

  1. There should be a task force created that audits each university and depending on what the parents and students paying tuition want to pay for make adjustments to the budget as needed. I, personally, don’t see why so much money needs to be spent on what the campus looks like. I don’t mean general maintenance, I’m talking all the extra fluff that probably equals 100’s of thousands of dollars. Why? Especially when professors haven’t gotten a raise in 25 years!!


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