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No public expenditure has a more productive impact on a nation’s health than its investment in education. But college costs have risen faster than inflation for three decades and, at roughly 25 percent of the average household’s income, now strain the budgets of most middle-class families. They impose an unprecedented debt burden on graduates and place college out of reach for many. This makes President Obama’s recent statement that college is “an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford” an especially urgent message.
As a career-long academic and former university chancellor, I support this position. But I disagree with the next assumption, that the answer to rising college costs is to throw more public money into the system. In fact, increased public support has probably facilitated rising tuitions. Overlooked in the debate are reforms for outmoded employment policies that overcompensate faculty for inefficient teaching schedules.
With the 1970s advent of collective bargaining in higher education, this began to change. The result has been more equitable circumstances for college faculty, who deserve salaries comparable to those of other educated professionals. Happily, senior faculty at most state universities and colleges now earn $80,000 to $150,000, roughly in line with the average incomes of others with advanced degrees.
Not changed, however, are the accommodations designed to compensate for low pay in earlier times. Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.
Such a schedule may be appropriate in research universities where standards for faculty employment are exceptionally high — and are based on the premise that critically important work, along with...