How much does it cost to educate an English student?

It’s a question the state legislature has been pondering with urgency while it desperately searches for some fat to trim from the state’s skeletal budget.

The answer, of course, is a lot. It might surprise a few Republican state legislators, but even an English degree requires more than a copy of the Penguin Classics. There are the costs of the classroom space, secretaries, administrators and countless other incidental expenses. But most important, there are the professors’ salaries.

The foundation of a school’s prestige is its faculty. Relative prestige is important because it dictates the quality of applicants, donations and the number of research grants. But hiring the best academic minds in any field is never cheap. So far, the University has done a remarkable job of attracting academic stars without going bankrupt. But its tenuous position is a perfect example of how – whether we like it or not – cash directly impacts education and how the quality of education is up for sale.

Of course, money isn’t everything. Harvard University’s endowment, at about $34 billion, is almost five times larger than the University of Michigan’s $7.1 billion endowment. However, few would argue Harvard is five times as good.

The University may lack the unlimited funds at the disposal of the Michigan of the East, but it’s still building impressive new buildings, attracting unprecedented numbers of students and making waves in medical and social research. The best students here are just as good as the best students there – even though students at the University can only dream of Ivy League-style grade inflation. But the University does fall way behind mega-endowed schools like Harvard in one contentious area: These schools can lure away the best professors.

The University is in a particularly vulnerable position. It pays full professors on average a salary of $130,400 a year, making it the fourth-highest-paying public research university in the country. That’s about one-third more than the average salary for all public research universities, according to data released by the American Association of University Professors. However, the University’s average salary is still less than the average at private research universities: $136,689. Harvard pays an average annual salary of $177,400. To stay competitive, public schools have to make a better offer. And so, suddenly, the gaping disparity between public and private means it costs a whole lot more to educate an English student.

The University is the fourth-best-paying public school; it likely isn’t a coincidence that U.S. News & World Report ranks it as the nation’s fourth-best-public school. However, the University is ranked the 25th best school overall in the country. since several substantially wealthier private schools are ranked much lower, this means it’s leaps and bounds ahead of its better-funded, private counterparts.

Still, while it might be tempting to look at the University as a champion of public universities, taking up arms against the elitist private schools, there’s really not much moral high ground it can claim. In March, an entire department of medical researchers at an institute in Syracuse will have picked up shop and moved to Ann Arbor, where, in a shocking display of professor poaching, the University has promised them more money and better facilities.

The argument for this kind of predatory behavior is that it centralizes research and learning in a few places. Proponents would argue that spreading brilliant people indiscriminately across the country encourages uniform mediocrity. The argument against the practice is that it can grossly divide the quality of education for students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.

The culture, of course, it not something the University can change by itself. In the meantime, it has to try to retain its faculty from other equally opportunistic schools. To do this, it could keep upping tuition or allow professors to spend less time with students, both dangerous propositions. Or, it could let them go. It’s true, the loss of top professors might drain the University’s prestige and the research funding that often comes along with it, but it might be a better alternative than accommodating superstars. Professors who want to be drawn away or are apt to be swayed by extended sabbaticals might not fit in here anyway.

The University has already proven itself remarkably adept at remaining competitive without a budget comparable to the top private schools’. And the faculty members who choose to stay despite the modest pay and the extra hours with students, are the most valuable ones. Still, if the state budget appropriation continues to wane, the University might not be able to keep up the gambit much longer.

Anne VanderMey was the Daily’s fall/winter magazine editor in 2007. She can be reached at vandermy@umich.edu.

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