Sunday, December 11, 2011

Does Tenure Increase The Cost of Higher Education?

A recent essay in the New York Times entitled "The End of Tenure" reviews two books critical of modern higher education. The complaints summarized by the review are familiar, and they include:

1) Higher education costs too much, and tuition keeps rising faster than inflation.

2) Tenured faculty at some elite universities do not teach enough, leaving much of the teaching to be done by adjuncts and other faculty who are not on the tenure track.

3) Student debt is rising by leaps and bounds and is unsustainable.

4) Faculty conduct research that is of little practical relevance, a claim that, if true, implies that the social cost of additional teaching by such faculty members is relatively low.

No doubt at least some of these claims are exaggerated. For instance, recent data also published in the Times suggests that horror stories about students graduating with, say, $100,000 in debt are few and far between. Indeed, these data show that 90 percent of students who borrowed to obtain their bachelor's degree graduated with less than $40,000 in debt. Moreover, some of those individuals who emerged with more than $40,000 in debt presumably chose to attend private universities instead of less expensive public institutions, thus undermining somewhat any complaint about resulting debt burdens. (A North Carolina resident who could have attended UNC Chapel Hill but matriculates at Wake Forest or Duke instead should not be heard to complain about his or her resulting debt burden.) Also, the tuition announced by a college or university is merely a sticker price and does not reflect financial aid that schools provide in the form of discounts for students who demonstrate financial need and/or academic merit.

What though about the claim, implied by the very title of the essay, that the institution of academic tenure is partly responsible for these woes? This is not a new claim --- earlier this year a legal academic argued that proponents of academic tenure for law school faculty were insufficiently sensitive to the fact that the institution of tenure increases the cost of law school. Does the institution of academic tenure make college more expensive, reduce access to higher education and pump up student debt?

Certainly not. After all, eliminating tenure and the job security that tenure brings would make academic positions less attractive than before, with the result that schools would have to raise salaries to attract high quality faculty. Moreover, if eliminating tenure led to greater faculty turnover, schools would presumably incur additional costs searching for and replacing departing faculty. In short, other things being equal, eliminating tenure would increase college tuition, reduce access to college and further add to student indebtedness.

While the institution of academic tenure might have some shortcomings, any propensity to raise the cost of higher education is not one of them.