Posts Tagged “college cost”

In Higher Education Policy, Facts Matter

One of the striking features of the new presidential administration appears to be the difference between fact and perception. On most levels, it seems that optics matter more than words. It also seems that facts are an afterthought to the positions floated. Further, it looks like many positions shift regularly depending upon how the outcome is likely to play with the American public.

It’s not that outcomes don’t matter; in fact, they do. But words also matter in the end. And facts inform the words that are spoken. Facts are the foundation that opens the dialogue, builds the trust, and sets a policy on which interested parties can agree. Facts aren’t subjective and they can’t be taken too literally. Facts are just facts.

For the moment, those of us who think and write about higher education can’t be certain about what’s coming.

While President-elect Trump has named a Secretary of Education, there’s not really enough to go on yet to forecast an education strategy.

What will be the policies of the Trump Administration? Will they reflect traditional priorities established by Congressional Republicans? Are there likely to be new Executive Branch initiatives?

Is the combination of national higher education associations, policy institutes and think tanks, and campus-based higher education leadership part of the swamp that Mr. Trump promised to drain or are they a resource to which he can turn as an outsider seeking informed opinions?

President-elect Trump has a right to claim some time to set up his shop. We’ll know more soon. We can withhold our powder and wish him well until perceptions become proposals. But it’s a short grace period when the issues are so pressing, consumer dissatisfaction is increasing, and pre-election campaign positions potentially threaten how colleges operate.

Colleges are a microcosm of American society. Almost every action taken will have some effect on them. It’s important to watch and learn.

It is even more critical for state and federal legislators to understand how colleges work and the pressures that they face. The facts always matter.

A recent example demonstrates the danger of creating a quagmire in the so-called “Washington swamp.” US Representative Tom Reed (R-Corning, NY) has reported that he is confronting the college cost crisis and the student loan debt issue through a variety of proposals that he will sponsor and support.

For Congressman Reed, the effort is personal: “I have firsthand experience with this myself having $110,000 worth of student loan debt when I completed my studies . . . Now, with my own daughter being a freshman at the University of Buffalo, this is something I have dealt with personally.”

Congressman Reed is justified to worry about high college tuition sticker prices and rising student debt. He supports the expansion of the Perkins Loan Program and Pell grants, for example, to help families deal with these costs. But many of his proposals suggest that he is not especially well versed about higher education issues that go well beyond legitimate questions about high sticker prices before tuition discounts and where comprehensive student debt originates.

Most troubling are two proposals grouped under what Mr. Reed has developed as a “Vision for Students” platform. The proposed federal legislation has the unfortunate and pejorative title of “Reducing Excessive Debt and Unfair Costs of Education Act.” In this bill, Mr. Reed targets about 90 institutions that have over $1 billion in endowment funds. His proposal would mandate that these endowment funds reduce a student’s tuition by 25 percent. This mandate might be expanded to other institutions as well.

If these colleges and universities failed to provide tuition relief, they would become subject to hefty tax penalties. Further, Rep. Reed’s proposal would require college campuses to submit plans to keep their costs below the rate of inflation. Colleges that failed to comply could lose federal aid.

Let’s set aside the issue of why the federal government that fails to keep its own expenses below the rate of inflation, suffers from growing consumer discontent, and has not modernized its own infrastructure should pick out sectors of the American economy – in this case higher education – for special regulatory treatment.

Instead, let’s look at the facts. There is no particular reason that $1 billion should be a cap for Rep. Reed’s proposals. Colleges and universities differ by purpose, scale in size and operations, and student income levels. A $1 billion cap is meaningless.

Further, endowments are often a collection of donor-restricted funds and not an unrestricted pot of gold that colleges use as discretionary accounts.

Finally, a five percent drawdown annually on a rolling twelve-quarter average will not generate the revenue necessary to support a 25% cut in tuition at most institutions.

In addition, colleges and universities that raise tuition – or allow their tuition discounts to rise beyond the level where net tuition revenue no longer increases – will either adjust to marketplace dynamics, merge, or close. It’s one of those pesky inescapable facts that should guide progressive federal policy.

Higher education is a little like the patient who will not improve if the wrong medicine is prescribed. As a start, it might be better to sit down with higher education’s leadership to ask how higher education works, what efficiencies can be created, and how the state and federal governments can be helpful and knowledgeable partners in a shared need to ensure an educated workforce.

Higher Education’s Stubbornly High Cost of Doing Business

In The Hechinger Report’s recent story, “University Bureaucracies Grew 15 Percent During the Recession, Even as Budgets Were Cut and Tuition Increased,” reporter Jon Marcus examined the confounding trend that many university systems are showing “new resolve . . . to improve the efficiency and productivity of stubbornly labor-intensive higher education” when “statistics suggest the opposite is happening.”

Looking at a variety of public systems across the country, Mr. Marcus found that “the number of people employed by public university and college central system offices . . . has kept creeping up, ever since the start of the economic downturn and in spite of steep budget cuts, flat enrollment and heightened scrutiny of administrative bloat.” Mr. Marcus reports that this growth happened at a time when states have collectively cut their higher education spending by 18 percent. He also notes that some systems like Maine’s central office grew by 26 percent – despite an enrollment decline and budget cuts.

There is a silver lining according to Mr. Marcus, however, who suggests that “after years of promising to save money by streamlining operations, cutting duplicate staffs and maximizing purchasing power, some university systems have been forced by political pressure and economic realities to finally start doing it.”

In Maine, for example, Mr. Marcus found under a new “One University Initiative” in which the system consolidated the budget, legal, personnel, information technology, insurance, purchasing, and other departments from its seven campuses resulting “in a 37 percent decline in the number of administrators at the universities that will save about $6.1 million a year.”

The findings are modestly encouraging and hardly surprising. Elected officials are increasingly placing American colleges and universities – at all levels – under greater scrutiny especially at the state and federal levels.

There is, of course, an ongoing historic frustration in the higher education community when politicians – most of who are not skilled in finance and who have not run businesses of substantial scale – wade into the management of higher education.

It’s easy for higher education officials to point privately to great gaps in how the state and federal government runs and finances their own enterprises in terms of archaic, disruptive, and conflicting management practices and protocol across all levels of government.

The complaints are not often voiced publicly, of course, because colleges and universities depend on government partnerships to fund student and institutional aid.

The Incremental Inertia of Higher Education


But in the end that may not be the point. The argument still holds that America’s colleges and universities operate in a culture dominated by incremental inertia.

No place is more conservative in its management practices than a college or university campus.

Smaller campuses operate on a time-worn academic cycle which can inhibit transparent decision-making when the campus powers down in the summer and during academic breaks, effectively five months a year at many colleges.

Challenge of Shared Governance

Shared governance is also a problem. The key to good governance is transparency and communication. It’s critical because key stakeholders – trustees, administration and faculty – have important roles to play. It sometimes means that everything takes longer than it would in a corporate setting or in government regulated in the days before the overuse of the “continuing resolution” by an annual budget cycle.

Decentralization Can Make Cost-Cutting More Difficult

Another problem, depending upon the institutional setting, is decentralization. In a decentralized setting without strong administrative leadership, college and university divisions, departments, and programs are their own fiefdoms. It’s impossible to create a standard data protocol because of bad record keeping and the differences among divisions like enrollment, financial aid, alumni, and advancement, or so the argument goes.

At the opposite end, the college’s adherence to state and federal regulation, its need to commit to key residence life programs, including athletics, mental health and wellness counseling, diversity initiatives, and internship and career counseling programs, as well as support accreditors’ demands for tighter accountability standards can cause administrative bloat.

One impact of the Great Recession has also been to “beef up” enrollment and advancement operations – a practice that demonstrates their importance to bottom line revenue so critical in weak admission markets. Should these programs be scaled back?

On any level, an ongoing effort to streamline to create efficiencies and economies of scale is a good idea.

But the practical dimension of the problem is that the operational model doesn’t work anymore for American colleges and universities.

Higher education cannot reasonably address the question of cost until its leadership understands that cost is first about whether the older operational models continue to serve them well.