Many of the country’s stronger universities are actively discounting tuition. These rebates, which can be thousands of dollars, aren’t coming from endowments or government grants. The colleges are dipping into their own tuition revenue—essentially taking from students who pay full freight and giving to others. And it is the high achievers rather than the needy students who are getting a good chunk of money. (Wall Street Journal yesterday)
Economic actors, even universities, are rational creatures. So why are they discounting the price of the “product.” It can’t be to drum up more business. They’re oversubscribed as it is. I think it’s to create more generous alums. Down the road, better students should enjoy more accomplished careers, earn bigger incomes, and give bigger gifts to alum mater. It’s a long term bet, but universities are well positioned for long term bets.
Would this be the time to think about quality control? There is no point bringing better students to campus, if we are going to inflict a substandard education on them. They will graduate unhappy. Or they will just leave and end up giving their alum dollars someplace else.
So it’s time to do something about those academic dead beats. You know the ones I mean. (If you don’t have them as colleagues, you had them as teachers.) Almost every department in almost every university has academics who just gave up years ago. Usually, they don’t teach very well. Usually, they hardly think at all. Now in mid-career, they appear to be struggling to qualify as late entrants in that rather large club identified by George Bernard Shaw. “Most people would rather die than think. Most do.”
Bad teachers have gone largely unchallenged for many reasons. Clearly, tenure is one. But incompetents have been tolerated to some extent, I think, because it’s hard to figure the real cost of the damages they inflict.
We can change that. Let us figure out how much a bad teacher costs a university. This will give a Dean something she can use. She can sit Dr. Lunatic down and say, “Dr. Lunatic, we’ve run the numbers. And it is clear to us that you have cost this university a small fortune in alumi giving, and, clearly, its only going to get worse. If we add to this your salary costs, roughly $140,000 a year, you are one expensive son of a gun and a luxury we can no longer afford.”
Ah, the discipline of numbers. Let us find this figure and post it imaginatively above the heads of every incompetent. Let us fix it there, so that it shows when he or she is sitting at the Faculty Club, walking across campus, and pretending to look something up in the library. Call it a “price on their head.” Not what the bounty hunter can win, but what the institution will lose.
First, a “lifetime value” calculation: the student, who for modest discount “x” in tuition, brings in an additional “y” in alumni gifting each year multiplied by the number of years he/she survives after graduation, adjusted for the upturn and downturn of income over time.
Now, a “lifetime damage” calculation. Dr. Lunatic teaches the intro course twice a year. (His department is punishing him for being a lunatic.) That’s 1000 students a year. Let’s say 1% of these students were given a discount to attend. Now of these 10 students, one is so appalled by Dr. Lunatic that she leaves the university immediately. (This is only a tiny fraction of the larger class but the whole of her alum generosity must be charged against Dr. Lunatic’s account. If her life time value is, say, $40,000, Dr. Lunatic is on the hook for a nifty sum. If it happens that the student in question goes on to enjoy the career of a Carly Fiorina, well, Dr. Lunatic, you have my permission to shoot yourself. Multiply the (non-Fiorina) alumni cost and Dr. Lunatic’s “lifetime damage” (on this score alone) is around $12,000,000. Talk about a price on your head.
Of the remaining nine students in the intro course, three will leave before graduation, the victim of all the Dr. Lunatics to whom they have been exposed. (Dr. Lunatic only gets partial credit here.) The remaining six students will split. Half of them will forgive the university their Dr. Lunatics and give as many alumni dollars as they would have given in any case. (Dr. Lunatic dodges a bullet thanks to undergraduate cluelessness. He is in short the beneficiary of the very cluelessness that it was his charge to dispel. Sometimes incompetence is it’s own reward and more.) The remaining three will give at smaller than expected funding levels, each more punishing than the last. Or something.
What does this add to Dr. Lunatic lifetime damage calculation? I haven’t clue. But someone out there must know how to run with these numbers within acceptable limits of approximation. I will happily give you the floor. Or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, I will post your wisdom and take your secret to my grave.
You can see what I’m hoping for here: a concrete number that clarifies the real costs of academic incompetence. As it is, university presidents, college deans, and department heads don’t have much leverage. Sure, it’s clear to everyone that Dr. Lunatic is a one-man wrecking machine in the classroom but until someone demonstrates the costs of this incompetence, it is hard to muster the administrative will to do anything about it. We need to shadow him on campus with that value that shows his real costs to the institution. Call this is a shame function. It makes us feel better but it doesn’t materially change the world and certainly not Dr. Lunatic.
But there is a larger opportunity for leverage. If we can get this number right, we can calculate not only the costs inflicted on alumni support created by Dr. Lunatic, but the amount that must be laid at the door of university administrators who refuse to move against him. Now we have a metric that can be used to assess performance in the high offices of the university. Dr. Lunatic has no shame. If he had, he would have restored himself to usefulness years ago. But Dean Robertson? Actually, she has pretty active sense of pride. If we say she is costing us hundreds of thousands of alumni dollars by suffering Dr. Lunatic, there’s a pretty good chance she will do something about it.
Yes, in my dreams.
Image above: Alma Mater on the campus of Columbia University.