How are American campuses dealing with ongoing financial pressures? Are things different now, as we head into 2012, than they were over the past few years? This was the somber subject of today’s impromptu video conversation.
What kicked off this session was a provocative speech by the United States secretary of education. Arne Duncan took higher education to task last week, urging academia to cut costs seriously and deeply.
I believe that postsecondary institutions and states also have yet to fully tackle the cost containment challenge in a comprehensive and sustainable fashion.
This is not just a job for any single stakeholder—though you must be part of the solution.
A group of educators from across the country met via Google+ Hangout videoconference to consider what this means, aided by discussants across the Web. I’ll summarize discussion here.
We saw many problems with this challenge. It seemed to repeat the conventional wisdom about the vicious cycle of more aid leading to higher costs, which means still more aid, etc. None of us saw a coordinated effort to make campus budget cuts happen across the United States. And we didn’t see a clear method in the speech for cutting costs without harming quality.
The secretary drew a bead on some specific cost centers:
Too many universities today actually have a perverse incentive to invest in expensive non-academic perks to drive rankings and attract students, like building gilded athletic centers and residential dorms.
Again, we had issues with this. Some discussants wondered to what extent that described all of American academia, or simply focused on some, wealthier schools. Others thought that cutting those “perks” was either unlikely (for example) or wouldn’t reap significant benefits. Salaries remain the highest expense.
We next turned to consider the politics of cost cutting. Some saw political pressure behind public calls to trim academia, while others considered the issue to be rising in public attention due to the Occupy movement. We wondered about the wealthiest campuses, considering their economic strategies, which include self-examination and aggressively cutting student debt. Some noted that cost-cutting did nothing to expand, much less maintain, current levels of general access to higher education. Indeed, it wasn’t clear which academic ecosystems Duncan addressed.
How are campuses currently seeking to recover or reduce costs? We explored several strategies, starting with the broad-scale one. This is where a group of campuses selects the best course materials and structures, then promulgates them across multiple institutions. A recent if controversial example is the CUNY curriculum redesign. Such best-of-breed strategies don’t always bear out through implementation, and sometimes pit administrations against faculty and/or unions.
Another cost-cutting strategy: emphasize better assessment. For example, secretary Duncan approvingly cited the Western Governors University (WGU) practice of assessing student work “not by credit hours but by demonstrated mastery of a subject.” In theory such assessments could speed some students’ progress through a system, reducing costs. Another spin on this approach involves automating assessment, as does the Open Learning Initiative (OLI, Carnegie Mellon University). Duncan again:
In fact, in Carnegie Mellon’s rigorously evaluated online statistics course, students learned a full semester’s worth of material in half as much time—and performed as well or better than students learning from traditional instruction.
However, this approach might not work for broad base of students.
Campuses are also cutting faculty costs. We referenced the Delta Project’s analysis of college costs:
Compensation accounts for between 60% and 70% of all spending. Spending on instructional compensation – faculty staff and benefits – ranges between 30% and 40% of compensation-related spending. (source)
Some campuses have responded to this by reducing tenure and increasing the number of adjuncts faculty (for example). We cited problems with this: instructors being unable to earn a living, the reduction in research.
A related approach: boosting the number of students per section, either by increasing class size, expanding distance learning sections, or both.
Can campuses redesign classes to recover or reduce costs? We mentioned two projects:
- The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) has worked to replace lectures. For example, their Math Emporium model replaced many math lectures with an open, on-demand learning space.
- The Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) initiative is supporting a wide range of projects aimed at increasing the quality of teaching while decreasing costs. It’s funded by the Gates Foundation.
We also noted Texas governor Rick Perry’s $10,000 plan for a 4-year undergraduate education.
To conclude our energetic, often dark discussion I asked participants to consider: is this spate of cost-cutting approaches different from those we’ve seen in recent years? Responses varies. No, came some: it’s just more of the same. Yes, replied others: more attention is being paid to college costs, while attacks on tenure have intensified. The latter have become more political (the summer protests in Wisconsin, Occupy Wall Street). Political winds have shifted, as well (cf Brian Hawkins, 2010).
Conclusion: there’s a problem, and solutions are problematic.
Participants included Barry Dahl, Zack Dowell, Lisa Spiro, and Bryan Alexander, your blogger. Many thanks as well to Twitter conversationalists Michelle Kassorla, Ted Major, David Weinstock, Chris Seller, and others.
Previous NITLE impromptu videoconference discussions: