Texas A&M University has done something very cool, albeit under some duress. They have released in a document longer than some novels a list of every single instructor in the vast A&M empire, including the smaller affiliated schools, along with information on their salaries, number of classes taught, number of students, weighted student credit hours taught, etc.
I went to my Chief Whiz Kid (student research assistant) Chris Matgouranis and told him to pick, more or less at random, 20 departments at the university's main campus at College Station. I told him to find one highly paid professor with very little teaching load in each department, but also the opposite, one instructor who is modestly paid but has many students. The findings were startling, even for a jaded veteran professor like myself who thought he was aware of the budgetary priorities of major universities.
The 20 high paid professors made on average over $200,000 each, and with fringe benefits it cost $5,004,400 annually to compensate them for their services. They taught collectively 125 students last year, or roughly $40,000 per student; since a typical student takes perhaps 10 courses a year, the average cost of educating a student exclusively with this group of professors would be about $400,000, exclusive of any other costs beyond faculty salaries.
To finance this extraordinary expenditure, let us look at the other 20 professors in our sample. They made almost precisely one-fourth as much on average, or just over $50,000 a year. With fringe benefits, it cost $1,250,697 to pay them. Yet these professors collectively taught 13,667 students (three taught over 1,000 students, and all the others at least 200), at an average instructor cost per student of under $100. It cost 400 times as much per student to educate the small number studying with the highly paid researchers as with the teachers with large classes. 80 percent of A&M's resources devoted to the 40 sampled professors went to the high paid researchers who taught less than one percent of the students.
My guess is the average tuition paid, net of institutional financial aid, was GREATER for those students in the mega-sized classes with the low paid instructors than that paid by the 125 students working with the high priced professors. The one group subsidized the other --massively. Almost certainly, freshman and sophomores at A&M were "cash cows" used to fund expensive graduate students and graduate programs. To be sure, many of the high priced professors no doubt received federal research grants, but in terms of costs to society, it makes relatively little different who pays the bills.
There are many retorts to all of this. It is probable a full investigation of all A&M instructors would suggest the differential costs between the teachers with heavy loads and the research oriented faculty would be less. And, of course, the high paid professors are relatively well known nationally and producing lots of research.
But is even that necessarily true? Is not the implied cost per article published, or per paper given at professional meetings, terribly high? Does it make any sense on cost-benefit grounds? Who knows? But I have my suspicions. For example, I examined the vita of the high paid professor chosen in the Department of Educational Psychology as posted on the department's web site. It shows in the five year period from 2006 through 2010, he published four articles in journals or books accumulating to just over 60 pages, had three papers "in press" and serves on the editorial boards of a couple of academic journals and is an associate editor of a third. The cost per student for him was $97,272 (he had two students last year). His lower cost counterpart in his department, almost certainly an adjunct or graduate student, cost $72 per student. Is it worth the nearly $200,000 extra per year spent on the high price professor in order to get roughly one academic paper a year? Some of the high price faculty were far more prolific (e.g., Michael Hitt, a management professor who apparently from what I can ascertain is near the pinnacle of his profession), and some may also have significant administrative responsibilities. Nonetheless, the implied cost of these services is very, very high.
I am not trying to trash A&M. Indeed, it is commendable that they have shown a level of transparency that is far higher than typical for a major state university. I suspect the pattern observed here can be replicated many times over at other schools. But it is also clear that universities spend huge sums trying to get prestigious professors, and that a serious examination of the cost-benefit of this type of behavior needs to be done by impartial outside persons or research centers.