Mike Brake | March 29, 2016
Higher Ed Waste: The People Have Their Say
By Mike Brake
A recent SoonerPoll survey asked three interesting questions about higher education in Oklahoma.
The Chancellor of Higher Ed makes more than $411,000 a year. Is this too much? Eighty percent said it was.
Could our public colleges and universities be run more efficiently? Eighty-two percent said they either strongly or somewhat agree they could.
Should professors be paid by how much they teach, or how many hours they dedicate to non-teaching activities? Seventy-nine percent said teachers should earn their pay by teaching.
Contrast those public views with the whining and poor-mouthing that flows from higher education leaders every year. In 2014, University of Oklahoma President David Boren complained that “I just don’t know how our schools and universities will survive.” He should read OCPA’s 2014 report on how money is spent at our two flagship universities, the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.
Across the nation, higher education staffing per student declined by 10 percent between 1999 and 2011. In Oklahoma, staffing per student rose by five percent. Clearly we have not been spending our higher education dollars efficiently.
Worst of all, that study found that large numbers of well-paid faculty members at both universities were spending little or no time in the classroom. So great is this disparity that at first glance most observers would say, “That can’t be true!” But it is.
At OSU, the busiest 20 percent of faculty members were teaching 54.49 percent of credit hours. Simply put, the busiest one-fifth of the faculty teaches more credit hours than the other four-fifths combined.
At OU, the average student credit hour teaching load for a faculty member is 143. That’s less than 50 students being taught by a typical faculty member per year, or 24 per semester. The busiest 20 percent of faculty members teach 60 percent of total enrollment. About 500 of OU’s 2,018 faculty members teach more than half of all classes.
If those other 1,500 teachers actually taught as much as their busier counterparts, the cost of instruction at OU alone would be cut by $100 million per year. A similar savings strategy at OSU would yield an additional $82 million in savings. One hundred eighty-two million dollars! And we haven’t even started assessing spending priorities at the other four- and two-year colleges and universities scattered across the state.
This is astonishing news to those who labor in the classrooms of state-funded schools. I was an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC for 22 years, and I seldom faced a classroom with fewer than 27 students. With two or three classes per semester, I was teaching as many as 162 students, or nearly 500 credit hours, each year, not counting summer sessions, where I often logged two sections with another 54 students. And adjunct pay in Oklahoma’s higher education system is notoriously paltry, a mere fraction of the $250,000 annual salaries of some senior professors.
Not only is the teaching load heavily skewed, Oklahoma higher education wastes uncounted millions more through duplication and redundancy. The OCPA report noted that both OU and OSU each have doctoral programs in finance, with faculty and administrative positions to support those programs. The two programs combined had just 19 students enrolled in 2014. If just four faculty members earning an average of $100,000 annually were occupied teaching and advising those 19 students we were spending more than $21,000 per student.
It’s not hard to find other such redundancies throughout the higher education system. Stand in downtown Oklahoma City and you are less than a 30-minute drive from seven public colleges or universities with nursing programs (OU, UCO, OSU-OKC, OCCC, Redlands, Rose State, and Langston) and five more operated by private institutions. Setting those aside, the taxpayers of Oklahoma are funding full administrative, clerical, and faculty staffs for seven different programs teaching the same courses and curriculum within a few miles of each other.
Imagine the savings if those seven colleges and universities joined forces via online classrooms and other examples of modern technology to teach the same number of students. And that’s just for one degree program in one section of the state.
Public institutions have an obligation to spend tax dollars as efficiently as possible, and with the delivery of adequate services to the people as their first priority. It is clear that higher education in Oklahoma is doing a poor job of managing and deploying the dollars we give them in state appropriations and tuition.
Those surveyed Oklahomans know there’s something wrong with this picture.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who has recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. He served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for then-Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin, and has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC.
Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.