Responding to my column last week about a report showing that the salaries of faculty members at Arkansas’ two-year colleges rank below that of the state’s public school teachers, a University of Arkansas professor commented in an e-mail that “being a professor is way easier than being a high school teacher.”
Since my 13 years of teaching experience all came at the four-year college level, I won’t argue that point. But I’m sure that the professor, who prefers to remain nameless, doesn’t want to be paid on the comparative difficulty of his own job.
After all, “difficulty” can be defined much differently from one discipline to another, from one class to another. I found working algebraic problems quite difficult so I certainly wouldn’t try to teach someone how to do that. On the other hand, many people find writing difficult, and I find it easy.
And during my teaching career occasionally I had a writing class that was a breeze to teach because of the number of good students in it. Others were — let’s say — more of a challenge. I’d hate to have been paid on the basis of how well the students from one of those challenging classes performed afterward because some students didn’t really try to learn.
Perhaps the hardest class I ever had was a summer Upward Bound class of high school gifted and talented students — not because they didn’t want to learn or weren’t able but because they had trouble staying focused.
Nevertheless, on all levels of education we generally pay our teachers more based on their level of education. There are other bases, of course, especially on the college level, but a person with a doctorate can expect to earn more than a person with a master’s degree. Therefore, those with more education tend to teach at a higher level of our educational systems. Mastering the subject is the first step toward being able to teach it well.
That’s why it surprised me to learn from the “Annual Financial Condition Report,” presented to the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board last week, that those who teach general education core courses at our two-year colleges made an average of $2,317 less than the average public school teacher in 2011-12.
As the report mentioned, Arkansas’ colleges and universities grew in enrollment by more than 20 percent between 2006-12, but at the same time total funds per student declined by 1.2 percent (5.3 percent for the 2-year colleges). Except for larger increases in tuition and fees, the picture would have been even worse.
Another response to last week’s column came from Dr. Tim Hudson, chancellor of Arkansas State University’s Jonesboro campus, who discussed the challenges of meeting Gov. Mike Beebe’s goal of doubling the number of undergraduate degree holders in the state.
“We know that the quality of the faculty largely determines the quality of the educational experience for our students,” Hudson wrote. “This is why we continue to prioritize competitive salaries for our faculty. After two consecutive years of 3 percent raises, our assistant professors are at 98 percent, and our associate and full professors are at 93 percent of the SREB [Southern Regional Education Board] standard — good progress but there’s more to be done. …”
“The key is to look at the costs associated with higher education as an ‘investment’ for society,” he continued. “What is the return on this investment, the ROI? For starters, university-educated persons on average earn nearly a million dollars more over a working lifetime, and there is a direct correlation between the number of adults with a bachelor’s degree and personal income nationwide. Perhaps as important, research indicates that adults with a college education live longer, are more likely to vote, join civic organizations at higher rates, are far less likely to be unemployed and require significantly lower social program spending.”
Hudson said that investing in college faculty, in college students and in higher education generally is critical for the state’s future.
He’s right, and yet higher education budgets are the first to be cut when the Legislature starts dividing up the available revenue. As long as we do that, we’ll remain at the bottom of most economic rankings. We can’t even count on Mississippi to anchor the bottom any longer.
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Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.