Doing the Math

A recent article by Rachel Riederer, “Teaching Class,”, has been making the rounds of social media, posted by many of my alert friends in the teaching profession. Riederer makes a point that is seeping slowly into general awareness: college teaching is a working-class occupation. As Riederer puts it:

A professor belongs to the professional class, a professor earns a salary and owns a home, probably with a leafy yard, and has good health insurance and a retirement account. In the American imagination, a professor is perhaps disheveled, but as a product of brainy eccentricity, not of penury. In the American university, this is not the case.

“At the City University of New York, an adjunct teaching full time—four courses per semester—receives a starting annual income of $24,644,” according to Riederer, who knows whereof: she is a writing-center tutor in the City University system. And that’s in New York, where Riederer notes it’s less than half the median household income.

In D/FW, adjuncts do a bit better, factoring in cost of living. A Lecturer in English at UTA, with a PhD and ten years’ teaching experience, makes $25,000 a year and gets free health insurance. Many, many, people live on less in Texas. It’s safe and physically unstrenuous work; some status and respect attach to it. People call you “Professor.” They call you other things too, but rarely to your face. And as Philip Larkin once remarked, “nobody actually starves.”

Of course, “nobody actually starves” is not exactly a great recruiting slogan for a profession. But as Riederer points out, the job market for English teachers is so bad that not starving is frequently held up to adjunct instructors as something they should feel blessed for after every microwave burrito. An administrator I know once memorably rebuked Senior Lecturers who observed that they earned less than entry-level kindergarten teachers. “Be grateful you have a job at all.” And so I am, believe me.

English and other humanities subjects, we’re often told, are simply drugs on the market, so teachers can’t be paid higher than lower-working class wages. (That $25,000 I mentioned above is about the median for the hundred or so instructors who teach for us every semester – most of them by the semester and by the course, without tenure or promotion possibilities.)

So I thought I’d do some math. UTA students pay in-state tuition of $4,439 per semester for 15 credit hours. That’s a flat rate – some take fewer hours, and some who take less than 12 hours pay more per credit hour. But at a conservative estimate, the typical UTA student pays about $888 for a three-credit course. Which is a heck of a lot less than they’d pay at Stanford or Rice.

Our typical $25,000 adjunct teaches five courses a semester, which can range between 20 and 40 students; let’s say 30 as a middle ground. Some teach more, some less; some make less money, few make more. 150 students a semester times $888 – I’m bad at calculation but own a calculator – that’s $133,200 in tuition generated by a typical Lecturer in a typical semester. The Lecturer receives $12,500 of it.

I honestly didn’t think it had gotten that bad. When I started work at UTA in 1988, I made $25K, and taught about 100 students per semester. Each of them paid about $100 per course, so I generated $10K in tuition per semester and was paid $12.5K. UTA didn’t go bankrupt because, then as now, it also received “formula funding” per credit hour from the state, a miserably small contribution but enough to top off my salary and pay for my “free” health insurance, and for overhead like power, IT, building maintenance, and supplies. And of course a university gets some other income from rentals and grants and donations and endowment income (though little of the latter, in Texas, goes toward personnel costs).

As my salary went up over the years, tuition went up too, but I continued to imagine that I was probably continuing to be a money sink overall, and that was true the last time I looked, an unvigilant ten years ago. But in the fall of 2014, I will teach sixty undergraduates who’ll pay around $888 a head. $53,280 in tuition alone, before formula funding: and I will see $38,000 of it. And I am one of the highest-paid, most senior professors in the College of Liberal Arts.

Where does all that profit go? I’d been so used to being told I was unprofitable that I didn’t realize there was any, but there is, and it’s especially drastic as one moves down the instructor ranks. Some goes toward the dreaded administrative bloat, of course: though I hasten to say that UTA is not as bloated as some campuses, and has actually consolidated some functions and eliminated some administrative positions of late; and our higher-ups are not paid very much by national standards.

As at any university, quite a bit of our non-profit “profit” is circulated back into financial aid, so that some students don’t pay that $888 (or the somewhat higher graduate-school tuition) in full. As many news items in the past couple of years have noted, though, that’s more than a bit of a bubble. If you’re offering a class for $888 and paying the instructor $83 of that, you might be able to save everybody some money by cutting tuition while raising teacher pay. But that would reduce the total amount of money in the system, and eliminate chances for it to stick on the fingers of outsourcees, vendors, lenders, cut-outs, and consultants as it makes its way through.

And of course universities have more expenses than they used to. Everybody knows that. Teaching is a smaller and smaller part of what we do at a large university, and despite what seems like a considerable ROI to me, it’s increasingly a “cost center” for the suits, as Riederer also notes. You can’t maintain a gym and a stadium and extensive programming and new dorms and apartments, and research promotion and development offices to secure more development funds, marketing ventures and branding and strategic planning and real-estate schemes, without some sort of revenue enhancement. You can apparently maintain it without chalk, because I’ve had to buy my own for years. I also bought my own computer and my own toner and my own textbooks, and I pay for research costs and travel and UTA parking – as do many of the people who make a third of what I make. IOW not much of that overhead goes back into faculty perks. But I’m not really complaining about perklessness.

I’m not really complaining, and I am open to correction. I am braced for an eloquent rejoinder from an administrator who will tell me I have no idea what it takes to keep a university functioning these days – in fact, how they’ve saved the institution from collapse because of their adroit financial brinksmanship, while I, the naïve Liberal Artist, dream on in my tenured cocoon. As they say, I’m just saying. I am just noticing that paying teachers a middle-class wage – paying them more than a tiny fraction of the tuition their students pay to be taught – is not among the things it takes to keep a university functioning.

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