Filling In the Plaid

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The American Institutes of Research has for a few years been running what they call their Delta Cost Project, in which they’ve tried diligently to investigate college costs and college spending. One fascinating data point we see is that employees per thousand students have remained pretty stable across time at different kinds of institutions. Take public master’s-level colleges, for instance, places like Grand Valley State in Michigan or Bridgewater State in Massachusetts, schools that we often call “regional comprehensives.” In 1990, those kinds of schools had 160 employees per thousand students; in 2012, 173. But even though overall employment didn’t rise all that much, the categories of employment changed a lot. The average full-time faculty per thousand students actually dropped a little, from 48 to 46. Non-professional staff (clerks, groundskeepers, maintenance workers) dropped quite a lot, from 62 to 45. Executive, administrative and managerial staffing also fell a little, from 11 to 9.

The two growth areas were part-time faculty, doubling from 21 FTE to 40 FTE per thousand students (remember, each FTE means two or three human beings picking up a course or two each); and “professional,” which means people in financial aid, student affairs, and co-curricular services, rising from 20 to 35.

I’ve long thought of higher ed as being in an era of transition, from stripes to plaid. Historically, the divisions that mattered were the vertical strands of departments and divisions, the academic communities who offered courses and majors. But there’s a growing community whose bands run orthogonally, the “cross-cutting initiatives” of offices of undergraduate research,  writing across the curriculum, service learning and community engagement, dozens of others. All of these were originally things that a few individual faculty members did, of their own volition. But somebody decided that those practices should be more widespread, more institutionalized, and created an office with a director and staff. Over the past twenty years or so, these horizontal bands have come to have a meaningful impact on the vertical pattern, making a plaid that’s increasingly dense.

An example, from a small private college in the upper midwest. This school had long prided itself on its study-abroad focus, but that had been operated by one professional staff member and one support person. Now, there’s a director, two assistant directors, three program managers, and an office coordinator, plus ten part-time student workers. Each of those is a twelve-month employee. Those seven permanent employees probably earn about as much as five assistant professors, more or less. And the choice to allocate resources that way has to be acknowledged as a choice, as something that could be done differently.

There’s no right answer to the patterning of higher education, no optimal ratio of vertical faculty to horizontal co-curricular staff. Both have important roles to play in students’ intellectual lives. But we need to be aware that both dimensions exist, and that their proportions are changing. And we need to recognize that doctoral education only designs its participants for one of those two dimensions; you don’t need to be a scholar to run a powerful study-abroad program. As the horizontal bands grow, as vertical employment declines and becomes more contingent, the changing patterns make the PhD an even riskier career path.