“There are a lot of beautiful buildings being built on college campuses, but you can’t get a course on Friday afternoon. And a professor, tenured professor, may not be teaching many more courses than one per semester.”
–former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), at a town hall event in Peterborough, N.H., Jan. 7
Bush often uses these two examples — the lack of college courses on Friday afternoons and the lessened workload for some tenured professors — on the campaign trail to argue for higher education reforms that encourage disclosing four-year graduation rates and lower tuition costs.
Bush said universities need to be held accountable and “have a skin in the game.” Rather than having an incentive to graduate students within four years in an affordable way, colleges actually have an incentive to prolong students’ graduation “because the government will pay for it,” he said.
How much truth is there to these claims?
The campaign noted that Bush was speaking in general about Friday class offerings at colleges.
“Right now, the incentive [for colleges] is to prolong it [students graduating in four years], to make it longer because the government will pay for it,” Bush said. “We need to make sure that universities have skin in the game, that they’re held to account.”
“For decades, students on college campuses nationwide have treated Friday as a day for sleeping in and slacking off,” according to a Columbus Dispatch article provided by the campaign. “Professors often say they don’t want to teach Friday classes because students don’t show up. Students sometimes complain that they can’t sign up for Friday classes because they aren’t offered. Whatever the reason, most schools hold far fewer classes on Friday than on other weekdays.”
Many campuses do offer fewer classes on Friday afternoon than they do at peak times during the rest of the week, said Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. But he said it’s not necessarily a hindrance to students graduating in four years, he said.
“It’s been a problem from a registrar’s perspective and resource administration [perspective],” Reilly said. “Your goal is to try to have your space occupied as fully and efficiently as possible, and that means you need your courses distributed uniformly throughout the week.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean students are taking fewer classes or have fewer options. Colleges are offering more flexible options, incorporating online courses or resources, and offering longer evening classes Mondays through Thursdays.
The broader enrollment-management issue is the lack of data to help students manage their course load so they can graduate on time. Schools increasingly are incorporating more data and predictive analyses into enrollment for this reason: to catch students early when they’re struggling in a class, and to make sure students have the right prerequisites so they don’t fall behind.
Bush is referring to tenured positions that require the professor to teach fewer than three classes per semester. The campaign cited several examples at the University of Hawai’i Manoa, Indiana University system,University of North Carolina system and Boston College.
There is no reported national data on teaching workload for tenured professors. But the campaign showed several large state university systems have raised concerns about the lack of teaching by their tenured faculty (i.e., California, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa). Moreover, some schools reduce teaching workload as a non-monetary reward to retain professors.
But the trend of such low class loads for tenured professors is most common in elite schools, doctoral research institutions and flagship public institutions, said John Barnshaw, senior higher education researcher at the American Association of University Professors. That comprises several hundred schools, which tend to have the highest retention and completion rates (therefore undercutting Bush’s argument). Meanwhile, there are about 4,000 other institutions that do not fit that criteria, where tenured professors teach an average of four classes per semester, Barnshaw said.
Higher-education institutions have a built-in completion incentive, because their completion rate and the amount of student debt are all reported publicly. This adds to the competition between schools — especially the research-intensive, elite and flagship schools where tenured professors teach fewer classes, Barnshaw said.
Several higher-education experts we interviewed said that Bush has a fair, but generalized, point that more can be done to give completion incentives to schools and students. For this reason, 32 states have enacted a completion-based funding formula — the same incentive that Bush pushed for during his answer at the town hall. There have been mixed results, but states are continuing to experiment with this model, rather than an enrollment-based one.
“I think what Jeb Bush is saying is, should we be looking at tenure, should we be looking at teaching loads, should we be looking at course offerings and when they’re available? The answer is, yes, we should be,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
The Pinocchio Test
Bush makes a broad claim: that schools have an incentive not to graduate students on time. He cites the lack of Friday afternoon course options and light teaching workloads for tenured professors as examples. Yes, schools tend to offer fewer Friday afternoon courses — but they make up for that by offering other course options. Tenured professors teach one to two classes per semester at research schools, but the average workload for tenured professors is four per semester.
Contrary to Bush’s claim, experts say schools don’t have much of an incentive to keep students enrolled longer. Among other reasons, schools need a reputable completion rate to remain competitive. The longer a student is in enrolled, the more student debt they accumulate — and higher student debt also makes the school less attractive to prospective students.
Bush has a point that there needs to be more incentive for schools and students to graduate on time. Yet he makes the point by generalizing two trends that apply to some schools and don’t apply to others — obscuring the context necessary to understand the issue.
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