Are Professors Worth It? Who Should Teach College Students in Their Small Group Classes?

Many universities offer tutorials, also called teaching-assistant sessions, discussion sections, or lab sessions, depending on where you live. These small group instructions complement course lectures. Tutorials are often taught by instructors of different academic ranks, ranging from undergraduate students to full professors. Higher ranked instructors are more qualified and more expensive, so Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca, and Ulf Zölitz wanted to answer the obvious question: Are higher ranked instructors worth the extra investment by their institutions?

To answer this question, Feld, Salamanca, and Zölitz analyzed data from a Dutch business school where students are randomly assigned to different tutorial instructors. The random assignment means that higher ranked instructors do not teach more or less qualified students, which allowed the research team to calculate reliable measures of instructors’ “value-added”—a measure of their effectiveness.

Strikingly, they found no meaningful differences in value-added by academic rank. For example, students taught by the most effective instructors—found to be postdoctoral researchers—gain only 0.02 points on a 10-point grade scale compared to those taught by the least effective instructors—Ph.D. students. Higher ranked instructors received somewhat better course evaluations, but the differences were small.

These findings suggest that universities can deliver quality education at a fraction of the cost by asking lower ranked instructors to teach tutorials. In this work, the business school studied could reduce tutorial instructor wage costs by up to 50 percent by employing only student instructors.

According to the authors, “Of course universities should consider on a case-by-case basis how to best use the time of their faculty. However, we would be surprised if, after this exercise, many professors would still teach tutorials.”

Read the fully study in the Journal of Human Resources: “Are Professors Worth It? The Value-Added and Costs of Tutorial Instructors,” by Jan Feld, Nicolás Salamanca, and Ulf Zölitz.

Jan Feld (@EconFeld) is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Economics and Finance of the Victoria University of Wellington. Nicolás Salamanca (@nsalamancaa) is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic & Social Research of The University of Melbourne. Ulf Zölitz (@uZoelitz) is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Economics and the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development of the University of Zurich.