Higher Education? Part I: How Much is a Professor Worth?

For my brief, positive review of the book, see here.

In the very first chapter of Higher Education?, the authors discuss the compensation that professors earn in comparison to the job that they do. They point to the fact that professors (at least at R1 or prestigious private universities) are paid a lot of money (six figures in a lot of cases, if you just read the book) for not a lot of work (four classes taught a year), usually with graduate assistants doing the bulk of the grunt work (grading, leading discussions, answering questions). This may be true for a small number of very prestigious schools (the Golden Dozen, as the authors call them), but for the majority of the professors out there who are in fact lucky enough to be on the tenure-track, this is not the reality.

State support for higher education had clearly been deteriorating. This has lead to an erosion of the real salaries of professors, while they have been asked to teach larger and larger classes, sometimes requiring that the professors teach an overload course, sometimes compensated, sometimes not. And these are not professors who are only teaching four classes a year. These are professors who are teaching four or five classes a semester or quarter. These professors are not making anywhere near six-figure salaries.

The picture that the opening chapter paints of university professors is one of lavish (unearned) privilege. The Ivory Tower is full of Marie Antoinettes calling for the ungrateful, unwashed masses of undergraduates to eat the proverbial cake. Maybe I’m over-reacting, and I know that there are many, many professors out there who do want more and more and more (money, prestige, accolades) for less and less and less (students, teaching, other responsibilities). But most professors work at underfunded, tuition-reliant institutions that cannot afford to pay professors a fraction of what the Golden Dozen and a handfull of others pay.

And besides, what is wrong with the pay a professor earns? As I have written elsewhere, professors face a huge unpaid/low-pay training period as compared to other professions. We go to school for ten years. While our friends who got out of school after their undergrads have paid off their student loans, begun buying houses and moving up the professional ladder, we’re stuck doing low-paying postdocs or adjuncting. We start our careers in our thirties, a full ten to fifteen years after our undergraduate cohorts do. Not to mention the loans we still haven’t paid off and the loads of credit card debt we’ve accumulated in the meantime.

The authors give an example of the pay and benefits of a professor at Stanford (pay, health, housing/mortgage credit, free tuition for kids, etc). For those living in an area where the cost of living is low, then this amount (high six figures, all things included) sounds obscene. But, having lived in California, what Stanford is paying is about what a person would need in order to live in or around Stanford. Northern California is expensive. Housing is expensive. Food is expensive. Heck, California taxes are expensive. A person living on that salary in Northern California is just hanging on to what we might consider the middle class.  The offered tax credit in order to buy a better house should be telling. In other words, on this salary alone, you can’t afford to live in a neighborhood that has good schools and is safe for your family. It might also say, you can live with the other white people, but that is a different discussion about the hypocrisy of higher ed.

Or is it? Early in the chapter, the authors refer to the old practice of placing universities away from the cities, to keep the professors and students “pure” and, one would imagine, away from distractions. If you point to the Stanford benefits package, why not point to the hypocrisy of being able to buy a better house to a class of people who increasingly identify themselves as being inclusive and tolerant?

The authors also do nothing to indicate what would be fair work and fair pay for professors. Later on in the book they (quite rightly) attack the obscene pay of university presidents and other administrators, saying that they should view their role as a public service and accept less pay as a result. What other sacrefices do they authors expect professors to make, already having forgone up to fifteen years or more of earning power (opportunity costs) in order to become a professor to begin with? We might have jobs that others would be envious of. But to paint us all as six-figure earning, student-hating (or at least avoiding), greedy, myopic relics of a time past isn’t fair to the thousands of professors struggling to make ends meet, even on a six-figure salary.

8 thoughts on “Higher Education? Part I: How Much is a Professor Worth?”

  1. Hi,

    I have taught as many as seven courses in a semester. This was by choice. If research, preparation and grading hours are included, I am compensated at rates lower than the minimum wage. Again, this is my choice.

    If you ask my current students during any given semester, perhaps 85% of my students would say they highly value my services. If you ask those who are still engaged in securing a degree after completing my courses, indications are that perhaps 95% value the services I provided. In every semester, administration is indifferent except to the number of seats filled. Yes, tolerating that form of abuse is also my choice.

    "How Much Is a Professor Worth?" -As little as the market will bear. That's how Adam Smith's "invisible hand" works. That's the choice I make every semester. I, however, have retired from a paying profession.
    I overvalue the contract with higher education while my students who receive my services virtually free undervalue their educational contracts. And as for administration? Answer that one to your own satisfaction.

    Don Ward

  2. Thanks, Don, for your comments. I agree that there are plenty of people teaching many, many courses by choice for little money. The adjuncting issues is for another day. But do you let your students know how little you are paid vs how much they are paying?

    We're the market. If we bear it, it will continue. But, that is a discussion for one of my other posts about the book. They deal quite extensively with the issue of adjuncts.

  3. I am not planning on reading this book anytime too soon (lots on my plate), but I'm curious after reading your comments here: why did you like this book? It seems that this "part 1" is mostly how the authors got it wrong about the lavish lifestyle of most professors (myself included, I should add). So, before I bother, can you tell me what it is to like about this?

  4. Steve: I think any book that tries to inflame the passions of people in order to bring about change is bound to infuriate those it attacks. And it does get a lot of things right, which I will be dealing with in my next handful of entries. Many of my negative comments (this one included) have to do directly with what kind of book this aims to be: inflammatory for the masses. So there have to be some generalizations and vilification.

    But, still to come: administrative bloat, the multiversity, athletic excess, the institutional arms race (rankings and prestige).

    As academics, we need to read this so we can be armed with effective arguments. We also should know what I (hope) is coming. It's the backlash and we need to be able to prepare ourselves for it, even if myopic administrators aren't.

  5. Lee,

    My students pay more for books than tuition. I, in fact, pay their tuition through my taxes. Many of my students pay far more for their cellphone plans than for education. Yet they complain of the excessive cost. Informing them of how their modest payments are allocated would be of little interest. The nanny-state has debased the currency of education. No one values what they get without effort.


  6. I only teach 2.5 courses a year and I'm well-paid ($150k p.a. – at the current exchange rate – but this is a very high cost of living area – think San Francisco) as a full prof at a top university in Australia. But I am meant to be mainly a researcher and engage in the public policy process here. My research is certainly at the useful end of the spectrum in social science. That's why we spend so much time interacting with policy-makers. I just spent the last week going to India and back to present there at a policy workshop attended by academics and government people… July I was in Korea… I'm paid at about the same level as people with similar experience and responsibility etc. would be paid in the Federal Public Service. So I think the pay level is fair. It's less than medical doctors, lawyers etc. make. I think Hacker and Dreifus just want to generate book sales by going on a populist rant against professors that don't fit their preferred model. I looked at the linked CHE article. I never see any reason to be ashamed about being poor. Where I come from spending too lavishly is something to be ashamed about. You can be ashamed about being lazy too. But I'm not American, though I lived there for 10 years.

  7. I was a tenured full professor and for family relocation purposes moved across country. I realize my salary is for a 9 month contract. After being a tenured full professor (with a teaching load of 36 quarter hours of instruction per 9 months in addition to research and signficant service) I came in as an untenured assistant professor in my new position. I earned 57,000 year when I did this. Ah – what an eye opening experience of the changes over the past 11 years to begin again. It's been humbling but also has made me deeply think at the system that is in my estimation no longer one that supports one of quality, longevity, morale and the ability to balance one's workload of teaching, service and scholarship to the benefit of all — including the institution and students. Sadly, I have seen the decimation of teaching as second-class to grant activity — for undergraudate students. I selected earlier in my career that a focus for me is in the art of teaching (and yes I do publish as well and engage in research – going through the tenure process twice). I am honestly dismayed at how wrong the profession has gone. I do not receive perks such as children or dependent tuition (at either institution). Summer pay was at an adjunct rate if available. I am now putting two of my own children through college.

    In my new position – my expertise after 11 years in program coordination, undergraduate teaching, etc. was called upon often. However – the IHE"s especially comprehensive public institutions -are not willing to pay for the expertise of mid career individuals (except in fields such as business or science). Age discrimination is also rampant. I do what I do because I believe we make a difference. However – as a single parent putting two children through college myself (and my children have and do take out learns and qualify for work study) I am disillusioned with the professionalism and balance the institution places on the bread and butter of the higher education experience — student learning.

  8. This is a sharp reminder how the entire system is riddled with problems (why does an old house with a bad termite infestation suddenly come to mind?). They are not limited to the most vulnerable. The situation also fuels the overload conflict between tenured and adjunct faculty.

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