The Graying of B-School Faculty: Do Teaching Evaluations Decline with Age?

College and university faculty demographics continue to shift toward an older workforce as professors are increasingly likely to delay retirement. The reality of this movement now stands in contrast to the much anticipated threat of mass retirements among baby boomer faculty. Of course, those initial reports had not anticipated the unforeseen economic events of the great recession which, in part, has contributed to faculty decisions to work much past 65 years of age. Indeed, according to a PBS News Hour report, approximately 75% of academics plan to work beyond what might be considered a “normal” retirement age compared to just 40% across other occupations.

Although some believe that aging faculty offer students intangible life experiences that enrich the academic milieu, such “hanging on” has been met with harsh criticism by the media and from within academia. Older faculty are often viewed as contributing to rising tuition costs, providing less research output and less contribution to the university overall. In a stinging 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Fendrich sees delaying retirement as not just bad for universities and their stakeholders but also unethical:

The inconvenient truth is that faculty who delay retirement harm students, who in most cases would benefit from being taught by someone younger than 70, even younger than 65. The salient point is not that younger professors are better pedagogues (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t), but that they are more likely to be current in their fields and to bring that currency into their teaching.

Age in the Classroom

Tackling this issue directly, a recent study by Stonebraker and Stone published in Research in Higher Education examines the effects of age on college professors’ teaching ratings. Although prior research has often found a decline in research productivity over time, little research examines the effect, if any, of age in the classroom. Stonebraker and Stone reason that there is likely to be a negative effect of age on teaching evaluations as faculty make substantial development investments early in their teaching careers and a much fewer developmental investments later in their careers.

The researchers analyzed 3,600 tenured and tenure-track faculty ratings from 58 colleges and universities. Ratings were drawn from the publicly available student ratings website RateMyProfessor.com. Age data were derived from university websites using either published birth-dates or by utilizing undergraduate degree graduation dates (assuming that their first degree was earned at age 22).

65 is the New 45

Overall, their results confirm a significant negative relationship between age and teaching ratings. That is, as faculty increase in age, their teaching ratings decline. This finding was consistent across numerous academic disciplines including business administration. While this may not surprise you, what might surprise is that the effect does not appear to be present until age 45. Prior to age 45, the researchers observed no appreciable effect of age on student ratings, after which ratings decline in a linear fashion.

They study also finds that two factors can buffer this negative slide, namely, perceived attractiveness and course difficulty. According to the authors:

…being rated either as easy or hot has a large positive impact on ratings and easily offsets the effect of age. An extra point on the easiness scale can compensate for over 30 additional years of age and being rated as hot has an even stronger effect (p. 802).

The discussions in the media which characterize older faculty as non-contributors and poor performers seem to be squarely focused on faculty who are near typical retirement ages of 65-70 years. And yet the significant effect in this study appears to be equally negative for individuals who might be seen as “mid-career” in their mid-forties. As the authors remark:

The quantitative impact of moving past age 64 or 69 are almost trivial. Looking only at those 45 and older, the average quality rating for instructors going from age 65 to 80 would drop by only .15 points.

Putting aside the potentially real economic impact on universities of delayed retirement, it’s easy to find anecdotal confirmation to reinforce an age-based narrative that implies such hanging-on is a drain on university life and student classroom engagement. The study reviewed here provides some important counterfactual evidence which suggest quite clearly that the relationship between age and teaching evaluations is not a function of “old age” but of middle age professors who are likely in the prime of their careers. Thus, casual observers of university life may need to revise the current narrative to openly recognize the fact that after 10-15 years of college teaching, professors’ classroom performance slides. And we’d be willing to bet most Deans aren’t ready to offer the retirement buy-out package to their 45 year-old colleagues.

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