Saturday, December 5, 2009

The fuss about retirement plan choices in academia

When you start with an academic position at a US state college, you usually get a day to acquaint yourself with local authorities and procedures. You hear from a lot of important administrators, sign a lot of forms, and try to understand what you got into. One of those forms determines which retirement plan you chose to contribute to: the state defined-benefit plan for all state employees, or the alternative defined-contributions plan with TIAA-CREF for teachers. Not knowing really what each plan delivers, you typically go for the second one, as you may not get tenured and value the fact that TIAA-CREF is also available in other states. But that decision was not well-informed, rushed and, most importantly, irrevocable.

Over the following years, as you learn more about the retirement plans, you wonder whether you made the right choice. But you were fine with it as long as the stock market was doing well and your retirement funds were accruing nicely. Now is a different story, given the big losses on the stock market. At several universities, faculty are remembering that they did not really make a choice when they selected their retirement plans and are asking for the opportunity to switch plans, and in some cases to buy contribution years in the state plans.

This sounds like a case of trying to game the system to obtain a better retirement package. This is particularly true as those complaining the most are now tenured, thus ex-post it is optimal for them to be in the state system. But if they were truly making ill-informed decisions when they signed up, they may have a point. But try to prove it.

Where they may be more successful is when the state will realize that these faculty will now retire much later as their retirement account is now worth much less. If fact they may never retire. This means that faculty will become much older and expensive relative to new hires. Administrations may actually view offering state retirement packages as a cost efficient way to renew faculty. Or they may use golden parachutes to essentially replenish the depleted retirement accounts. Thus, faculty may not even need to complain...


Anonymous said...

Our (chemistry) department is currently buying out several of the older professors to free up funds.

Anonymous said...

Our state had a early retirement incentive program for those on the state pension system, but nothing for the others. Guess who retired and who did not. The university lost a lot of staff, but almost no faculty. Staff had to be replaced at almost no cost advantage, and the budget is still is disarray.