Trustees | Costs

Analysis: Arizona universities make do with fewer staffers

ARIZONA REPUBLIC   |  February 5, 2014 by Anne Ryman

New data out today suggest Arizona’s state universities are running comparably lean operations when it comes to their numbers of faculty and staff.

Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University have fewer faculty and staff than the national average for public research universities. Both schools and the University of Arizona have fewer administrators than the national average, according to data released to The Arizona Republic and USA Today.

The numbers were compiled in a report by the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research, a non-profit organization that studies college affordability. The report examined hiring trends and changing staffing patterns at public and private universities.

Arizona bucked some of the national trends outlined in the report, which found that more universities rely on part-time faculty and less on full-time instructors. ASU has even shifted more toward full-time faculty compared with 2004, according to the data.

But education experts say the lower faculty averages indicate hiring at ASU and NAU hasn’t kept pace with enrollment growth. That’s likely the result of a variety of reasons—most notably cuts in state funding during the recession that meant per-student state funding was cut in half.

ASU had 39 full-time faculty for every 1,000 full-time students compared with 64 nationally in 2012, the most recent year analyzed. The university had 52 part-time faculty, a figure that includes graduate assistants, for every 1,000 students compared with the national average of 83.

ASU Senior Vice President and University Planner Rich Stanley said that despite being lean, the university has been able to increase the number of graduates, improve student retention and bring in record levels of research funding.

“You can’t simply say ASU is under-resourced,” he said. “You have to say ASU may be under-resourced, but it’s doing a pretty good job with the resources it has available.”

By comparison, UA has 74 full-time faculty and 107 part-time faculty per 1,000 students, both above the national averages.

UA officials said the university’s status as a “land-grant institution” makes its mission different from the other two universities.

Part of its charge is to provide education in agriculture, science and engineering. An emphasis in several health-care clinical programs also requires more intensive training, and the university added more faculty when it opened a medical-school campus in 2007.

Nationally, the study found that colleges have continued to hire full-time faculty but at a pace that has either equaled or lagged student enrollments.

Troubling trends

Some of the trends aren’t viewed by experts or students as positives.

Universities that aren’t hiring enough faculty to keep up with enrollment growth could be making class sizes larger, said Donna Desrochers, author of the study.

In 2012, The Republic reported that budget cutbacks and growing enrollments resulted in classes of 50 or more being more common at Arizona’s state universities.

Megan Fisk, a 25-year-old graduate student who completed her undergraduate degree at ASU, was surprised to learn how ASU’s faculty levels compared nationally. Her class sizes have ranged from about 100 students to as small as five or six students.

She said it will be important for the university to keep close tabs on the large class sizes to make sure students are satisfied.

“As long as the student satisfaction is on par with the other classes, that’s fine. I would want that data,” she said.

ASU’s Stanley said it would probably be better to have more faculty, “but that’s not the situation we’re in.” He said faculty compensate by carrying heavier workloads. Others use technology in the classroom, such as computer software that analyzes individual students’ work to see which math concepts they still need to master.

Tuesday’s report suggests that many new student-services jobs have taken over tasks that once fell to faculty, such as academic advising, career guidance and disciplinary actions.

“(Colleges) seem to be investing in jobs that involve working face to face with students,” Desrochers said. “It’s not all just back-office jobs they’re creating.”

The report concludes that “investments that directly support student success are wise if they lead to improved learning and degree outcomes,” the report says.

Desrochers said the national trends highlighted in the Delta report won’t be found at all universities because of a host of local factors, including state funding levels, hiring patterns and trends, and individual budget priorities.

Rising costs cited

The report contrasts with a string of recent studies, including one released last week by the non-profit American Council of Trustees and Alumni in Washington, D.C., and a 2010 analysis by the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based think tank. Those reports blamed rising college costs on an expansion of jobs that have little to do with the education of students or discovery of knowledge.

The Delta report found that a number of factors played a role in rising tuition, including increased employee-benefit costs, non-faculty hiring and declines in state funding.

“There is no single, smoking gun responsible for rising higher education prices,” the report said.

One area that saw a big jump nationally was jobs in the “professional” category. These generally require a bachelor’s degree and provide student services and academic support.

College officials have argued that more support services have become necessary because college operations, including complying with federal regulations, have become increasingly complex.

Unlike the national trend, though, Arizona’s three state universities have seen decreases in the professional category compared with 2004.

Some education experts, including University of Arkansas education professor Jay Greene, who authored the Goldwater study, question how far colleges should go.

“It’s not unreasonable to provide counseling (or other services) to students, but the question is: How much of that is what the university is supposed to be doing?” he said.

“Someone has to pay for all that. Universities have lost sight of their primary mission of research and teaching. They have become non-profit conglomerates.”

USA Today reporter Mary Beth Marklein contributed to this article.


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