How new instructional cost data can inform your academic planning

Instructional costs are on the rise, and if trends in student major choice hold, they will continue to grow. That was the finding of a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which filters Delaware Cost Study data down to the department/program level and finds that instructional cost is mostly a function of class size, and to a lesser extent instructor pay.

Cost increases driven by trends in student major choice

These findings give nuance to the pervasive belief that class sizes are getting larger and larger. Increasing class sizes might be the case in some disciplines, but the primary trend we’re seeing is a migration toward disciplines with smaller class sizes. Specifically—as any institutional leader knows—students are migrating away from traditional humanities disciplines and toward preprofessional disciplines and sciences. While a few (chemistry, for one) still feature large introductory lectures, many of the growing fields have smaller, more hands-on courses—and no way to offset higher faculty salaries.

When added to EAB’s findings through the Academic Performance Solutions collaborative, these findings shed more light on the causes and remedies of growing instructional costs. To be sustainable for the future, leaders will need to pay attention to the implications of these study results.

Implication #1: Revitalizing the humanities through general education doesn’t just ensure that students have a strong humanities background—it helps control instructional costs too.

So far, we’ve been treating the student migration away from the humanities as something that can’t be changed. To be clear, universities don’t need to give up on trying to revitalize humanities majors entirely; a number of innovations including adding professional “tracks” (like publishing in English or museum management in history) have helped draw students back to these programs. But ultimately, students still have the freedom to choose a major, and as employer demand shifts, preprofessional programs help students prepare for a 21st-century career.

And that leaves humanities programs without students to instruct, and students without instruction in the humanities (especially if they bring in credit from dual enrollment or previous institutions). Is it time to rethink general education requirements to refocus and revitalize the humanities? This is one of the topics where EAB members asked us to focus this year, and we’re already exploring some of the most exciting efforts to redesign gen ed.

Implication #2: Use active learning pedagogies to scale courses sizes without compromising learning outcomes.

Our research shows that class sizes have a minimal effect on student outcomes. But that doesn’t imply that institutions should indiscriminately add seats to all courses. In fact, what does affect outcomes is differences in pedagogy—and active learning pedagogy has been shown to improve outcomes even in very large courses. If some courses need to expand to balance out humanities declines and preprofessional program growth, students are counting on universities to preserve opportunities for individual engagement and small-group discussion even within the largest courses.

Implication #3: Filter cost data down to the department or program level.

Related toolkit
Instructional Capacity Playbook

One of the most exciting aspects of the NBER study is that it looks at more granular Delaware Cost data than we’re previously seen. Given the high variation across programs revealed by the study, it’s more important than ever for all institutions to engage faculty leaders in monitoring instructional cost at this level. An electrical engineering program will never be as cost-effective as mathematics, but programs can benchmark against previous years’ costs and peer program costs through participating in the Delaware study or EAB’s own Academic Performance Solutions. Departments have minimal control over faculty salary, a largely fixed cost because of tenure, so instead, faculty leaders should manage revenues by setting credit-hour production targets per faculty FTE, monitoring course releases, and getting more data about faculty activities outside of classroom time. (See our study, Academic Vital Signs for more detail.)

None of these innovative ideas can happen without faculty support

Since not every faculty member is interested in teaching large introductory courses—or has the time to get trained in active learning pedagogy—these trends might imply more differentiation in faculty roles going forward. In our 2019 topic poll, academic affairs leaders asked us to learn more about differentiated faculty career tracks, responsibilities, and workloads. Will the next generation of faculty be split between teaching and research tracks? Are there even more disruptive changes to faculty roles on the horizon? We’ll be pursuing these research topics over the next year to learn how some of the most progressive institutions are responding to growing costs and new demands on faculty.

Improve instructional costs with 10 no-regrets analyses

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