Comments on economics, mystery fiction, drama, and art.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Economics of Columbia Law School

Paul Campos has an interesting post at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, in which he discusses the changes in (inflations) adjusted tuition, endowment and annual giving revenue for Columbia's law school.  I thought it would be interesting to put the distribution of revenues in percentage terms, and revenue per enrolled student.



% from

% from Endowment
% from
Revenue per Enrolled
$25.6 Mill.
$59.4 Mill.
$114.2 Mill.
(In 2016 $$)

Strikingly, there has been little change in the percentage distribution of revenue sources.  Tuition is up a little, and use of endowment income is down a little.  But, overall revenue per student has increased by a factor of 3.  [Enrollment has increased from 1,050 (1975) to 1,350 (1996) and to 1,460 (2015).]  Where has the money gone?  Unfortunately, Campos does not tell  us.  However, the Chronicle of Higher Education data base lists full professors at Columbia University (not just the Law School) as earning $201,400 in 2014-15.  The earliest year in their data base has Columbia fulls at $131,900 in 2003-04.  (Columbia has apparently not participated in surveys of law school salaries.)  So faculty salaries at Columbia, overall, grew in real terms by about 1.4% per year between 2003 and 2015.  If that rate of growth holds for the entire 1975-2015 period, then average law school salaries would have increased by about 76% between 1975  and 2015.

Columbia has about 125 full-time faculty now, or about 1 for every 12 students (The school also employs a large number of part-time, adjunct, and other faculty; the total list is about 450 people with one sort of academic rank or another.)  I suspect both that the number of full-time faculty and the  number of total faculty have grown more rapidly than enrollment, although in the case of full-time faculty, probably not much faster.  A constant student-faculty ratio would suggest about 88 f-t faculty in 1975 and 110 in 1995.  But I would bet that the number of other-than-f-t faculty (currently about 325) has increased much more rapidly than enrollment.  Let's suggest, then, that faculty salaries as a budget line would have tripled between 1975 and 1995 (or, given the likely growth in non-full-time ranks, perhaps even quadrupled).  Given the 40% increase in enrollment, faculty salaries per enrolled student have increased by something like 50%.

Where has the rest come from?  I suspect that administrative positons have grown more rapidly than faculty positions (and perhaps salaries have grown more rapidly as well).  The Law School, as is true of almost every academic program everywhere, has had to make large, and on-going, investments in technology. But the tripling of law school revenue per enrolled student seems extraordinary (and note that tuition per enrolled student has slightly more than tripled).  That probably is not, in the long-run, a positive outcome for Columbia Law School students, or for the School itself.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A minor rant on grade inflation

This is a comment I posted on a blog elsewhere.

Grade inflation is one of those topics that nags at me. The linked article refers largely to “elite” universities. Other things equal, I would have expected average grades to have gone up somewhat in those institutions, because they have become even more selective. Unless their selection algorithms are even more messed up than we would have thought, they should be doing a better job of selecting students more likely to succeed. Why wouldn’t grades rise?

And that’s without considering two other phenomena that extend beyond elite institutions.

The first is the more widespread availability of assistance for students–study skills, writing/math/language labs, tutors (I’m adjuncting at a reasonably selective private liberal arts institution right now that has tutors available for intro econ; until the mid-1980s, or even later, many if not most public universities did not offer tutors for those courses), and so on. An immense amount of research on which study practices work better (and for which types of students), and that information is fairly widely available.

The second is that more and more institutions–yes, even elite schools and R-1s–are at least paying more attention to preparing people to teach and supporting better teaching practices. This is true at all of the institutions at which I have taught, and it appears to be true generally. There has been an explosion in the number of journals that focus on teaching in higher education, with actual evidence of what does and does not work. Institutions have teaching/learning centers and run series of workshops. So, I would contend, the average effectiveness of instruction has increased.

Put all this together–why wouldn’t we expect grades to have risen? If I am correct, the only way to prevent that is for grading standards, far from eroding, to become more stringent.

I do not intend to imply that no one anywhere has eased up. I simply intend to argue that a rising average grade distribution is not necessarily *proof* that standards are eroding. Hell, I’m not sure it’s even *evidence* that standards are eroding.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Rules for constructing a "space opera"

Charles Stross finds his publishers wanting him to write a "space opera" (think a multi-volume, thematically-connected episode of Star Trek, or a multi-volume "hobbits in space."  He has been thinking about the pitfalls to be avoided in developing the institutional and physical structure of such a work (and, it seems to me implicitly says such works can't be coherently constructed).  I decided not to read through the 500+ comments already on his blog post (he has a huge and literate following), but wanted to add this.

Any "space opera" will   have to have either (or both) of the following characteristics:

1. Much faster-than-light travel and communications.
2. Extremely robust  social/political/economic institutions.
Why?  Simple.  Planets are a long way apart; the closest likely  habitable planets to us are 4+ light-years away, the second closest more like 13 l.y.  For commercial purposes, there needs to be a way to finesse the extremely long time it would take for beings on Planet A to place an order with beings on Planet B and have that order delivered.  With out closest possible neighbors, we're talking around 10 years, even with communications and travel at (or near) the speed of light.  Transactions times in the decades are perhaps more plausible.

The alternative is, in effect, inter-planetary commerce that consists of "tramp spaceships" picking up loads of stuff on Planet X, heading off to the nearest planetary systems, and hoping to find a market (that seems to me to have been the Ferengi economic plan in Star Trek: Deep Space 9).  And hoping that your customers will pay you in something that you find useful or can sell (barter) elsewhere.  And being able to live with what you can get for sustenance.  At the speed of light, you've got maybe 10 or 12 ports of call in your lifetime, assuming (a point Stross raises) you can keep your ship from falling apart, and/or can fend off space pirates.  (Let's face it, piracy was a major problem for global commerce on this planet for hundreds of years.)

The alternative to all this is simply to hope your readers aren't paying enough attention, of just don't care.