Reframing Notions of Faculty Quality


By John W. Carroll

Public colleges and universities tell state legislators that budget increases are driven, in part, by the arms race for top quality, full-time faculty. This may be true at elite public institutions. However, the argument falls apart at non-elite universities, where the supply of well credentialed faculty far exceeds the number of job openings. According to basic economics, when supply outpaces demand, prices fall. Theoretically, faculty wages should be falling, or at least being held constant. College costs driven by faculty wage pressures should be going down not up. Why, then, are college faculty costs continuing to rise? It is partly because non-elite public universities are following the wrong faculty model.

One of the ways flagship state universities signal quality is by noting their number of full-time faculty. The flagship faculty model, if you will, may be effective for elite institutions but could drive up faculty costs unnecessarily at non-flagship schools. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that enrollment at some non-top-tier colleges and universities increased over 30% since 2000. Higher faculty costs followed higher enrollments, as non-flagship schools embraced the flagship faculty model of employing full-time faculty in the name of quality, rather than hiring equally well credentialed part-time faculty.

In the absence of more direct appropriations from state legislatures (unlikely) or Purdue style savings (for which I am naively hopeful), non-flagships will be forced to increase tuition and fees, or cut faculty costs.  The first step in lowering faculty costs is abandoning the notion that full-time faculty are inherently more qualified than their part-time counterparts.

Consider two recently minted PhDs from a flagship public university. Assume, for the sake of discussion, that they took the same core classes from the same faculty, graduated with equivalent GPAs, and had the same core faculty on their dissertation committees. By these objective measures, the students’ academic preparation is roughly equivalent. Upon graduation, one gets a full-time job while the other serves as an adjunct. In this scenario, the only measurable difference between the two is job status after graduation not academic preparation. The academy perpetuates the idea that one’s job confers the imprimatur of quality, not one’s academic training. We have this backwards.

In Texas, approximately 17.5%[1] of public university[2] students are enrolled at our two flagship schools. At flagships, students’ matriculation decisions depend more on the schools’ reputation than they do on cost. Flagships can charge more because students will pay more. Rather than focus on lowering faculty costs at flagships, focusing on other public universities, where 82.5% of the students attend, may yield greater cost savings that can be passed on to students. Changing how we signal faculty quality is an important first step in reframing faculty models away from the high cost flagship faculty model toward high-quality, low-cost alternatives.



[1] Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Certified Texas Enrollments Fall 2017

[2] This excludes community colleges, private colleges, and medical education. Adding community colleges drops the percentage of student attending flagships to 8%.




Dr. Carroll earned a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the the University of Texas at Austin. He holds a masters degree in agricultural economics and an MBA from North Dakota State University. He currently serves as Vice President of Customer Success for a cyber security firm moving from California to Texas.

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