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The Economics of Colleges

  1. Feb 14, 2010 #1
    I go to a big old public university, so it's a bit different. Instate undergrads cost either about the same or more then their tuition, which is one of the reasons weeding courses are so popular and grade inflation isn't so bad, and out of state students are the big supplements. I had a friend who had trouble getting advice for his masters program 'cause he realized he was just about the only US citizen in it, his question was related to his status, and none of the advisers had ever really dealt with it before.

    Working as a tutor and going to a school with a really strong support system for students, I can tell you that often the kids going to the tutors aren't the ones who most need them or go far too late to get any real help. Even the ones mandated by teachers seem to go out of their way to make the sessions as unhelpful to themselves as humanely possible.

    It's not quite as bad as it all sounds, 'cause most of the time the politics is just an undercurrent. Plus, all jobs come with politics, academia is just a bit harder 'cause its all the same circles.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 14, 2010 #2
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    One thing that you aren't counting here is that in-state undergrads get a subsidy from the state legislature, which generally makes in-state undergraduates a cash-cow also. If universities weren't making massive amounts of money from undergraduate courses, there wouldn't be weed out courses.

    Here is how one state does it....

    http://pie.tamucc.edu/special_reports/Formula_Funding_101.pdf [Broken]

    It's more than a little depressing to realize that you are a number and not a name.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Feb 14, 2010 #3
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    There is a pretty large demand for teachers and researchers in both community college, undergraduate levels, and no shortage of jobs for researchers either in national labs or in industry. One thing reason for being realistic about research professorships is that once you realize that there *are* alternatives, the world ends up being a much nicer place.
  5. Feb 14, 2010 #4
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    I kind of know about those 'cause every time there's a budget cut, our tuition gets hiked. In-state tuition is about $5,000 a year, so judging by the numbers I'm finding for subsidies they're still not a cash cow. The engineers are constantly burned 'cause they're aren't enough for seats for all the students who need to take a course to graduate. It seems like for us, grad students are far more of a cash cow, but yeah the Texas link was incredibly depressing and page 31 sounds exactly like my school. (In some majors, it's the last time students have tenured faculty.)

    I thought it was the other way around: inflation and less weeding 'cause they want to keep you around to keep paying tuition, no inflation/more weeding 'cause they don't care if you drop out.

    But it's so much easier to get through all the maddening bureaucracy once you accept that nobody gives a damn about you and you've just gotta memorize the bulletin/handbook and have page #'s to point to when fighting with the administration. Some of the best advice I got about a random bureaucratic problem was to throw a ton of paperwork at the problem and get everything in writing.
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2010
  6. Feb 14, 2010 #5
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    On the other hand if I get up in front of a bunch of eight year olds and tell them how wonderful science and technology is, or if I get up in front of a Congressional committee and talk about how essential it is to produce more Ph.D.'s, then I really don't think that I can ethically walk away and say "not my problem." If the NSF talks about a shortage of physicists so that they get more funding, yes they do owe me a living.

    The basic problem is that without the basic labor that graduate students and undergraduates provide, there would simply not be the money to pay for tenured faculty. This isn't a new problem. The notion that a life of the mind is a noble endeavor that should be available to everyone conflicts with the economic fact that someone has to work the fields and take out the trash.

    Also the "grow up, the world does not owe you a living" is a *VERY* dangerous thing for a tenured professor to say to taxpayers that are paying their salary. Anything you say can and will be used against you.

    If you look at the cold hard numbers, I think it's pretty difficult to avoid that conclusion. One thought experiment you can do is to think of some "what if." What if the number of Ph.D.'s that were produced were drastically reduced? What if we drastically reduced the number of lower division classes? Then work through the numbers and they don't work out.

    The basic problem is N professors produce N Ph.D.'s that produce N professors.

    The trouble is that there are limits to what good intentions can do. One thing that I found is that professors in academia are often seriously misinformed about what jobs are like outside of academia, and that's not surprising. One problem is that if we were to reorient Ph.D. programs to be less research focused, then the tenured faculty in physics departments would lose control of the curriculum, and that's something I can't see happening.

    You just illustrated one thing that simply has just got to change. If someone decides that they are just not going to academia and wants to do something different, this is not "giving up." When someone says "it's your choice" what's really unstated is "and you are a lousy human being for making that choice." If someone gets a physics Ph.D. and then decides to start a pizza chain, I think people should jump for joy and break out the champagne, because that's one less person that is competing for faculty positions, and I'm sure that somehow having a physics Ph.D. making pizzas will do something that will improve the social good. But if doing anything non-researchy is "giving up" then it's not a surprise when you have these Malthusian crises.

    One cool thing about Ph.D.'s, is that I really don't think that there is a labor surplus of physics Ph.D.'s. There is a huge surplus in academia, but if you think about it, the numbers are really tiny. We are talking about 1000 or so new people each year, and that is a minuscule insignificant fraction of the work force.
  7. Feb 14, 2010 #6
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    Calculate the amount of money that the department has to spend to put on the course. How much does it cost them to hire the professors and the TA's?

    I think you'll find that they really are a cash cow.

    University of Phoenix has taken this to it's logical conclusion, and they are making revenues that are totally frightening.

    The problem is that upper division courses are more labor intensive than lower division ones so the optimal strategy is to fill up lower division courses with people, and then get rid of them before they get to the upper division ones which are less profitable. Upper division courses are a lot smaller, which means that the return on student is less.

    Private universities have a different set of incentives. Private universities don't want people to drop out because the big, big money is in alumni donations. Undergraduate becomes big-shot CEO, big-shot CEO donates several million into the endowment. So what private universities look for are for undergraduates that are likely to make it into the power elite and send back massive amounts of money later.
  8. Feb 14, 2010 #7
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    About 20-30 students if the students are each taking 4/5 courses, but there's still all sorts of other overhead, like staff (janitors and the like), supplies, maintenance, equipment, etc. I get that they're making a profit and all, and hell I'm a vastly underpaid tutor (going rate outside academia is up to 5 times what I make), but I'm not quite ready to write it all off as a scam.

    You're kind of ignoring that most colleges have 18 year old kids who don't have the slightest clue about what they want to do for the next four years, so lots of lower division courses also let them flit around a bit until they settle on what they mostly like. Lower division courses (especially in math and sciences, but also sometimes in the liberal arts) are also far more likely to be core requirements and therefore taken by students from lots of different majors. By the time people hit upper division, they usually stop switching their major (regardless of if they like it or not) and courses don't carry over to different majors.

    Not in engineering. My school has made it an art form to not offer most electives and offer only about two sections of any given engineering courses, forcing upper level engineering courses to be maxed out and over tallied 'cause nobody wants to stay a semester for one more course.
  9. Feb 14, 2010 #8
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    Politics can be pretty nasty anywhere in academia, and I've seen some nasty politics in community colleges. One reason politics tends to be nasty in academia is that it's really hard to quit. One thing that's paradoxically good about industry is that you know you are going to get laid off every few years or so, so if things get too nasty, you just leave. If you get fired from software company A, there are about 200 other software companies in the local area that may be nicer to work with. If you get fired from university A, it's not as if you can go across the university next door and get a job.

    One other thing is that there is often no reason to cooperate. I've been in industry situations, where it is "I hate you, I know you hate me, but we have to get this product out the door or else we are both sunk." This doesn't happen very much in academia.

    The problem with community colleges is that the jobs are there, but the teaching loads are heavy and the pay can be bad. Teaching colleges can be nice jobs, but you have to "re-brainwash" yourself. After spending a decade around research professors, it's hard not to feel a slight sting when you realize that you aren't going to be them.
  10. Feb 14, 2010 #9
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    It's not as if there is some evil genius cackling over the amount of money that they make. But institutions do respond to economic factors. Often the genius of a bureaucracy is to split up the roles so that no one has to take moral responsibility for what happens, but everyone somehow manages to get their paychecks in the end.

    Also things like the heating and the janitors usually don't come from the department budget.

    This seems to be an awfully, awfully inefficient way of doing that. What I think would work better is if the university offered short "sampler courses". Take one month to find out what life would be like as an engineer. If you don't like it, after a week, just quit the course and no one will know, and you can try something else. The problem with that is that the funding system just blows apart.

    Also where did we get this silly idea that the best place for an 18 year old kid that has no idea what to do is college? (That's somewhat of a rhetoric question. Since in 1965, the alternative to college was Vietnam.)

    You are assuming that the core requirements are something that are fixed from the skies, when in fact core requirements are not the only way of setting up an academic program. Personally, I think that it would be better to get rid of core requirements completely, replace them with a test to see that you've mastered a certain skill, and if you have then no one cares where you have gotten that skill. Educationally it makes sense, but the problem is that it wreaks havoc with funding systems.

    Again, you have to ask yourself why people make those rules. One thing that you'll find is the the curriculum requirements are basically a treaty to split up funding and political power between the departments.

    That's a sign that the department is losing money from the courses so they are looking for any excuse they can not to offer them.
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2010
  11. Feb 14, 2010 #10
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    On the flip side, most of the tuition doesn't end up in the department budget.

    Well, in theory that's the point of intro courses. When I talk to freshies in computer engineering, I always tell 'em that if they can't hack CS102 or circuits, they'll hate the major. Most of 'em think it'll get better, and it does for some of them. Basically, I'm not sure most students can make a decision in a month, or want to.

    Well, the AP system sort of does this in some ways, as does the testing out system many schools have in place, but it can be rather wonky. I'm currently relearning the exact same material I learned in more depth in high school 'cause my school can't figure out how to evaluate the AP world history exam, and I got burned on calculus 'cause honors decided all incoming freshmen should be in the same section of Cal 2, whether we placed out or not. (But at least honors paid the tuition, and extra, for 4 years, so I can't complain too much.)

    I think writing and basic math are core competencies. I can half agree with you on the rest, but I think academic pride comes in a bit, the idea that all students need to know at least a bit of the humanities and sciences before they go down their own paths.

    I can buy that. Engineering has the most students, high drop rates but lots of upperclassmen for a number of reasons (lots of 2nd degree students and foreign students), and nobody wants to teach the courses.
  12. Feb 15, 2010 #11

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    I'm not really sure what your point is. Clearly, you are/were not interested in pursuing a career in academia. My comments were directed at two people who both said "gee, the employment picture is a lot bleaker than I thought", not at you.

    I am very consistent in telling people a career in academia is but one choice among many. And it is a choice- I chose to return to an academic setting from an industrial setting. I don't appreciate getting lumped in with east-coast establishment wankers.

    I don't have to apologize for other people's bad behavior any more than you do- and you work for Wall Street, no?
  13. Feb 15, 2010 #12
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    I think my point is that something in academia is pretty seriously broken.

    I've always been interested in being an academic. It's just at some point along the line, I figured out that academia may not have been the best place to be an academic. Personally, my interest is to get as many people involved into science and technology in ways that don't make me feel guilty in the long run. I think that there are too few scientists in the United States, and the question that I'm interested in is how you create an infrastructure that allows for scientific innovation.

    Part of the reason that I got into investment banking was that after the root problem of everything seemed to be about money, I figured that it would be useful to study this money thing. Working on Wall Street is as much a part of my education as graduate school.

    It's not a matter of apologizing, but rather an issue of fixing the problem. One thing that I have learned on Wall Street is that bad behavior by someone else can quickly create a situation that you have responsibility to fix or prevent. If it helps fix the problem, I'll apologize for anything and everything.
  14. Feb 15, 2010 #13
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    twofish-quant, I've been reading your posts for some time, and you seem to genuinely believe that people with PhDs can find jobs outside academia and you want more people to do their PhDs. Have you ever encountered the problem of overqualification? Some employers simply will not hire PhDs as they are overqualified and excessively specialized. Do you think that's a problem?

    (And I know that many Wall Street banks hire physics PhDs for quant positions but if one does not want to work in a bank?)
  15. Feb 15, 2010 #14
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    Absolutely. To some extent you can fix the problem with marketing. One thing that newbie job seekers have to realize is that your resume is not your autobiography, but rather a short commercial jingle or movie trailer. My Ph.D. is one of the more important things in my identity, but it may not be the most important criteria that the employer is looking for, in which case it goes into the section next to "hobbies."

    Also sometimes, you will find an employer that just has preconceived notions and will not hire you. If they won't hire you, then move on to the next person. One thing about industry is that a lot of habits in academia are counterproductive. In academia, jobs are so rare, that a NO is a big deal. In industry, there are enough fish in the ocean, so if you get a NO, then you just throw the hook back into the ocean.

    Banking is the third industry that I've worked in, and I'm pretty sure that in about ten years, I'll be working in some other industry. One skill that I've been able to use is that I have programming skills, which are generally useful across a number of industries.

    One thing that oddly helped me get a job in finance is that I really don't care that much about finance. I was interested in a well-paying job in which I get to learn new stuff, and which I get to do geekish things without being forced to always be a geek. One thing that hurts people that go into finance is that they often focus on the glamour jobs, when most of the work involves things that aren't that glamourous. There is the financial equivalent of a tenured faculty string theorist position at Harvard, and there is also the financial equivalent of teaching basic algebra at a community college. What I'm doing is closer to the latter than the former.

    Banking came along as the thing that was most interesting, but in my last job search, I came pretty close to working for airline logistics.

    The one important thing is that the Ph.D. was useful, but I would have been dead in the water if I didn't have marketable programming skills. This is one reason I think it's important to think about both the Ph.D. curriculum and the messages faculty send. Once you get your Ph.D., it's difficult to get the "extra skill" that you need in the job market, but while you are getting the Ph.D. there is plenty of time to get a teaching certificate, take some journalism courses, learn how to run a website, read up on property management, or learn plumbing and basic electric wiring.

    The basic problem with the way that the Ph.D. is structured now is that students are given a list of alternative careers, but if those careers are seen as "second best" choices then what tends to happen is that students will focus on getting a research position and then when they find out that they are among the 4 of 5 that aren't going to get a research position, the adjustment is traumatic, because there is no fall back. I think it would be better if departments just accepted that most students aren't going to be professors, and are tolerant if a student on day one of the Ph.D. program is also learning introductory plumbing on the side. This even goes to before the student sets foot on campus. Right now, I don't think that a Ph.D. application in which an applicant said that they have no intention of doing a post-doc after they their Ph.D. but instead plans to be a plumber or a community college/high school teacher is going to get a good review.

    One thing I think that we really seriously need to think is the idea of an "academic as a career" since it's neither financially sustainable nor is it good for physics. I think society would be a lot better if you had plumbers with physics Ph.D.'s, journalists with physics Ph.D.'s, high school teachers with physics Ph.D.'s, and politicians with physics Ph.D.'s.
  16. Feb 15, 2010 #15


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    Interesting thread.

    How do you see people with PhD in Economics or PhD in an Engineering working as quant? are they as capable as someone with a PhD in Physics from your point of view??

    I ask because you insist everyone should get a PhD in Physics :confused:
  17. Feb 15, 2010 #16
    And what role does the cost of textbooks play in the Economics of Colleges?
  18. Feb 15, 2010 #17
    It depends on the state, but in most universities faculty are associated with a department and so the department has to pay for salaries out of those funds. Things that are general expenses come out of a physical plant budget.

    But surely there is a better way of doing things than the current system. What I'd like to try is to have people that sign up for a course take a battery of tests whose scores are not recorded. The student can then find out what holes in their knowledge they have, and fill them before they walk into the meatgrinder.

    Maybe that will work, maybe it won't. But my point is that anything that is very different from the way that things are currently run, is going to fall apart once you run straight into the way that universities are funded. It would be nice if you run a test, and figure out that the student has trouble with spatial visualization, so you let them do some exercises on spatial visualization. The trouble is that you run into the question "so whose budget does it come out of?"

    The way that universities work basically involve 19th century factory processes that are way, way out of sync with 21st century demands. To use a relevant example, universities can teach civil engineering, but how can they teach "things that you can do with a civil engineering degree if you graduate in a bad economy?" or "how do keep your job as an EE when everything is being outsourced to India?" These types of skills just don't fit into the standard course curriculum.

    And the reason for this is that the school doesn't have either the financial or political incentive to fix these problems. The financial incentives work in favor of the school *not* fixing these issues, since if they made it easy to transfer credit, people would shop for the lowest bidder and you could no longer use lower division classes to fund other things.

    One thing that I do think is going to hit colleges like a tsunami are the for-profits like University of Phoenix and DeVry. There are things that a brick and mortar college can do that UoP can't, but there are going to be some huge and likely painful restructuring before that will happen.

    I do think that people are forced to go to college a lot earlier than they should. Personally, I think that someone that can't put together their own curriculum and make intelligent decisions on what to learn and what not to learn probably isn't ready for college.

    I don't think the current system is sustainable, but it's not necessarily the case what what replaces it will be better, and a lot of my thinking has been on how do deal with the changes that are about to happen. To give an example of what worries me, University of Phoenix has basically done is to take industrial service processes and apply them to undergraduate degrees, UoP produces degrees in pretty much the same way that McDonald's produces hamburgers. In some ways this is a good thing, McDonald's produces fast, efficient, food, and its even healthy if you know what to eat and what not to eat. But at the same time, it reduces academics to burger flippers, which isn't quite my image of a university.
  19. Feb 15, 2010 #18
    Several of my EE professors have done that to scare us into reviewing old coursework, but I've never seen it really pan out 'cause students are generally lazy and over-confidant (my self included here.)

    Like I said previously, even if you can overcome the budget issue (my school has dozens of tutoring and support programs), that doesn't mean a student will actually do the exercises. For every student I get who comes repeatedly well in advance of due dates and patiently listens to explanations and asks questions and tries to absorb things, I get 5 who were told by their professors that they had to work on their papers with a tutor and still come in 3 hours before a paper is due.

    I know it's silly to say that the system should be changed 'cause kids are irresponsible and need to be hand-held through coursework, which is pretty much the point of high school, but I do think any proposed reform has to have a realistic view of student behavior. I don't actually think it's a major loss to lose students who can't shape up, as that's what the system is set up to do anyway, but then I'm not sure there's much reform. If you switch to shorter intro classes, the rates on each class will probably just go up.
  20. Feb 16, 2010 #19

    Andy Resnick

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    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    Are you implying there was a time when it was not?
  21. Feb 16, 2010 #20
    Re: What determines faculty hirings in physics departments?

    No. There is no such thing as heaven on earth, and the responsibility of each generation is to fix the problems that the last set of fixes caused.

    One way I like to think about it is that for the last 200,000 years people have been struggling to deal with the problems of starvation. Now we have solved this problem in the industrialized world, and we have problems of *overabundance*. Diabetes, heart disease, obesity. In some ways its progress that the major health problem in the US is obesity rather than malnutrition, but it's still a problem.

    Similarly, people had to move heaven and earth to create the system of research universities that we have in the United States today, and then we have this problem that it's massively successful at doing that, now what?

    Also the problem that I think academia has today is basically the same problem that intellectuals have been struggling with for the last 2500 years. Basically, the problem is that it's all nice to talk art and philosophy, but in the end someone has to plow the fields, and grade freshman papers. The solution that Plato came up with is to have philosopher-kings run everything and lie to everyone else about why they are in charge. The trouble is that this run counter to democratic and egalitarian ideals, and you have the problem when people that have been trained to be a philosopher-king finds that there just aren't enough slots.
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