MOOC Skeptic’s Toolkit: Sample Letter #4, to a Taxpayer

The purpose of the letters in this toolkit is to provide material that can be edited to be sent to listserves, to be posted on blogs or to be shared on social media sites, and to be submitted as op-eds to campus or community newspapers.

Some of the letters may be too lengthy to be very practical or engaging. But they can be edited however a writer wishes: for instance, the detail can be reduced to emphasize the key points, or the writer can focus on one part to the exclusion of the rest.

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Dear Taxpayer:

Everyone would like to pay lower taxes, but sometimes, even with regards to taxes, there is a good deal of truth in the old axiom “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Our public institutions are like our infrastructure—our roads, bridges, airports, river levees, and reservoirs. If we don’t invest sufficiently in our public institutions, they eventually deteriorate to a point where it becomes almost prohibitively expensive to fix them.

When our taxes are spent on public institutions, including our K-12 schools and our public colleges and universities, there should be sufficient oversight to insure that there is as little waste as possible. But not investing in our public institutions, including public education, is tantamount to wanting to eliminate those things that most define our communities, that give our children and young people a sense of shared values and a sense of the importance of public service, and that insure some continuing sense of a shared national identity that supersedes any of the differences in ancestry, class, and religious or political affiliation that also define us individually.

Over the last three decades, the state support for our colleges and universities has decreased dramatically. State allocations used to cover between 50% and 60% of the cost per student but now typically cover only about 20% of the cost per student, or less at some institutions.

Some will be quick to argue that professors are underworked and overpaid. But here are a couple of facts that might surprise you.

Thirty years ago almost 75% of professors were tenured or tenure-track. Today, fewer than 30% of professors are tenured or tenure-track. Those in research areas for which there is much grant funding may still have relatively low teaching loads, but those in most disciplines in the arts and sciences have seen their teaching loads rise steadily, along with their scholarly requirements and service expectations. In order to be hired into a tenure-track position, an applicant now needs credentials that, thirty years ago, would have been sufficient to be granted tenure after completion of one’s six-year probationary period. Yet, like the salaries of most middle-class Americans, the salaries of even the tenured faculty at most institutions have not kept pace with inflation over the last three decades.

Another 15% to 20% of faculty hold full-time non-tenure-eligible positions that involve even higher teaching loads and that pay significantly less. And 50% to 60% of today’s faculty are adjuncts, most of whom teach part-time at several institutions in order to earn something approaching a living wage. These faculty are typically paid between $2,000 and $3,000 per course, with no benefits. So an adjunct faculty member who teaches five courses per semester or ten courses per year can expect to earn between $20,000 and $30,000 per year. And almost all adjunct faculty hold Masters degrees, while an increasing number of them have earned Ph.D.’s.

Beyond these facts, you’ll probably be very surprised to know that, on average, only 20% to 25% of the typical university’s budget goes toward the salaries and benefits of those teaching all of the courses.

As in most American corporations, in which management salaries have increased while the average workers’ salaries have either remained flat or declined, in our universities the gap between administrative salaries and professors’ salaries has widened dramatically. In Ohio, for instance, all of the presidents of our ten largest public universities are ranked among the 100 most highly paid public university presidents in the nation. The number of vice-presidents, provosts, and other administrators has also continued to increase dramatically, and those administrators then receive salaries proportionately scaled to the bloated salaries of the presidents. And, not surprisingly, the largest increase in employment in higher education has been among the support staffs for these growing armies of administrators.

If you combine the dramatic growth in the expenditures on administration with the dramatic decline in state support, it is no wonder that universities are relying increasingly on underpaid adjunct faculty and ever larger class sizes.  When there are 400 students stuffed into a large lecture hall for a course, students frequently complain about being a faceless number with little opportunity for any interaction whatsoever with the professor.

And where are all of these dismal trends heading? Well, in the coming months and years, you are likely to hear a lot about MOOCs. In fact, since MOOCs are the “quick fix” of the moment, you may have heard about them already.

MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses, are digital courses that can enroll 40,000 to 400,000 students. They are being proposed as a new way to further cut the costs of delivering college courses. It should be very clear that whatever the deficiencies of courses with 400 students, those deficiencies will be greatly magnified by MOOCs.

Even if the cost of attending college decreases somewhat because of gimmicks like MOOCs, the value of the degrees that students earn will decline more than the cost of the degrees to them. You need to know that the elite institutions that are developing most of the MOOCs won’t accept them for credit.

So, rather than latching onto every new technical gimmick that makes a false promise that we can somehow provide a quality education on the cheap, we should insist that our universities put a greater budgetary priority on teaching students and then that our legislators put a greater priority on funding public education.

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