College students aren't sausage. KU's effort to maximize professor-student ratio is shortsighted.

By Sarah Robins and Andrew Denning
Special to The Capital-Journal
Andrew Denning
Sarah Robins

There is a difference between a ribeye steak lovingly prepared at North Star Steakhouse and the hot dog you buy at a fast-food joint. The steakhouse operator makes a profit based on the quality of meat, preparation and personalized service. Fast-food eateries profit off quantity: more hot dogs, served more quickly, to more customers.

Each establishment has its place. One of them, however, is a poor model for higher education in the state of Kansas.

Kansas boasts six public, four-year universities, despite being the 34th-most populous state in the nation. The University of Kansas is one of only 36 public universities in the prestigious Association of American Universities, a club that includes Ivy League schools and such elite public institutions as Texas and Michigan. KU’s presence in the AAU is an economic engine for the state and something larger states like Tennessee, South Carolina and Nevada cannot match.

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These are difficult financial times for higher education everywhere but especially in Kansas. State appropriations to higher education have declined steadily over the past decade, as the state Legislature deprioritizes investing in one of our state’s key assets, effectively ignoring a central mechanism for training our state’s best and brightest and encouraging them to remain in Kansas.

KU has worked creatively to manage these cuts while preserving our AAU status, something our neighbor to the north, the University of Nebraska, was unable to do (Nebraska was voted out of the AAU in 2011).

Now, the COVID-fueled rise in operating costs alongside loss of tuition money brings further financial hardship. As faculty at KU and taxpaying residents of Kansas, we recognize that budget cuts are necessary. This conversation must expand beyond legislators and administrators to consider the stakeholders of Kansas higher education: students, their tuition-paying parents and residents of the state.

The KU administration’s proposed response to our current budget situation is centered on “throughput.”

What is throughput? A business buzzword, throughput is the number of undergraduate students taught per faculty member and is meant to maximize the amount of product (students) passing through a system (undergraduate education). It’s higher education, hot-dog-style.

A year’s tuition and fees at KU costs just over $11,000 — a serious investment, but a relative bargain compared to other state research universities, particularly those in the AAU. Hardworking Kansas students and their loan-saddled parents should therefore be upset to learn that KU’s administration sees them not as stakeholders or even as customers, but as product: sausage to be rendered at ever faster rates to squeeze marginal savings out of instructional costs.

It’s also a shortsighted business model. To continue maximizing “product” with a declining population, KU will be forced to shift further and further away from quality education. High-school students and their parents have long tracked student-faculty ratios. It’s the top academic statistic displayed by US News.

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KU’s ratios will rise to levels that make it impossible to remain competitive. The throughput model abandons KU’s distinct advantage in the competitive market of higher education: a world-class research university with the intimacy of a small, selective liberal arts college.

Students are not sausage. They are not empty vessels that faculty fill with mass-produced knowledge. Education suffers when seminar discussions and close evaluation of student work are exchanged for multiple-choice exams.

If implemented, we can expect that the legislators and administrators responsible for this system will send their own children out of state. Kansans who cannot afford opportunity elsewhere will be left with a diminished education.

The throughput model asks Kansans to pay for a ribeye education, with the quality and care of a tube steak.

Sarah Robins is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Kansas. Andrew Denning is an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas.