Trustees | Costs

Higher Education’s “Obesity” Problem

MINDING THE CAMPUS   |  August 2, 2012 by Armand Alacbay

Open a marketing brochure for any college or university in the United States and you’ll find an info-graphic touting the variety and number of degree programs that the institution offers. The more options, the rationale goes, the more likely a student will find a desired specialty. The distinction between programs can be subtle, for instance “Music, General” versus “Musical Theatre,” or “Agricultural Engineering” versus “Agronomy and Crop Science.”

But the dreary fact is: higher education is in the midst of a major financial crisis. Institutions’ bond ratings are falling and resources are in short supply. Boards of trustees must figure out how to do more and better with less. While administrative costs have to be examined, they are only part of the problem. According to former president of the University of Northern Colorado and co-founder of the Lumina Foundation Robert C. Dickeson, “[t]he failure of governing boards to focus on academic programs is arguably the single greatest cause of overspending.”

This month the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) is sending Dr. Dickeson’s guide, Setting Academic Priorities: A Guide to What Boards of Trustees Can Do to ACTA’s network of more than 13,000 trustees around the country. It provides governing boards with a framework for establishing academic program review policies that direct resources to mission-critical areas of their institutions without neglecting students’ needs. Of course, achieving this goal must entail consolidating some academic programs into larger, more cost-effective units or eliminating them.

Reallocating resources away from individual academic programs is a challenging exercise and may well provoke a hue and cry from faculty and their professional associations. This is why so many boards take the politically expedient path of making across-the-board cuts whenever they are forced to reduce instructional spending. However, this tactic has limited value: a Bain analysis of nearly 1,700 public and private colleges finds that one-third of those institutions are on an “unsustainable financial path” unless they get their spending under control. In the long-run, the “go along to get along” approach of avoiding the tough decisions can be far more costly to the institution—and to students.

In our recent California state report, Best Laid Plans, The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education in California, ACTA found that there were 512 degree programs in the California State University system that each produced fewer than ten graduates in 2010-11. In addition, in 2011 the school discontinued 15 programs—while approving the addition of 19 more. Meanwhile, the nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California ran 792 low-enrollment programs in 2010-11. Some of these programs were repeated in multiple locations in the system: for example, a mere 14 UC students from five different campuses graduated with baccalaureate degrees in Geophysics and Seismology.

When faced with the numbers, the San Francisco Chronicle characterized the problem as “the obesity of American higher education.” But folks on the inside thought differently. Representatives from UC responded that “[l]ooking at data of graduates can misconstrue the purpose of the program” and touted the “variety of courses (and) studies that allow students to explore, become more well-rounded, more worldly, and better prepared to make a difference in the world.” Translation: each campus is a kingdom unto itself, fielding as many programs as possible, each with a complement of full professors, associate professors, and assistants, rather than looking for the efficiencies of inter-campus collaboration and resource-sharing.

The protest missed the crucial fact that mindless proliferation of courses costs a lot and often reduces, rather than enhances, student opportunity. The proliferation of academic programs, as Robert C. Dickeson said, is “the real driver of cost for the entire enterprise, academic and nonacademic.”In California especially, variety is great, but it’s costly and available only to students actually admitted. There are thousands of students being turned away from schools in the California State System because of “program impaction,” when applicants must either meet additional admissions criteria or choose an alternate major because their first choice is already filled to capacity.

The more money that is spent on low enrollment courses, the fewer resources available to spend on other priority arease—majors and programs that a large number of students (and employers) want. At the University of Virginia, observers raised different objections when the board of visitors dared to question the president’s financial plan. In the course of the saga, low enrollment courses were front and center. One newspaper reported that the board felt that the president “lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.” Meanwhile, the higher education community reacted with statements largely equating program review with the virtual destruction of the liberal arts.

As it turns out, the University of Virginia Department of Germanic Languages and Literature has a faculty of fifteen: nine full or associate professors, two assistant professors, and four lecturers or instructors. Yet, in 2010-11, the Department graduated two undergraduate majors, one MA candidate and two PhD candidates. Essentially, the UVA Board was asking whether, in the midst of a budget crisis with tuition up 38% between 2004 and 2010, it was unreasonable to investigate a more cost-effective way to run its German program. University boards around the country should ask themselves similar questions.

Our high-tech age makes redundant, low enrollment programs at multiple campuses an unjustifiable cost. Schools are well positioned to form academic consortia that will maintain broad options for students while keeping institutional costs low. There are already good examples. The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), for instance, has 14 universities which have formed consortia for courses in small majors such as philosophy and foreign languages. The program has been so successful that PASSHE has added new majors such as Arabic and Chinese—and now, in the depths of the budget crisis, the consortia are crucial for the preservation of these vital languages. Proving that German need not be a dead language, eight North Carolina public universities created a German Studies Consortium to share offerings; a Russian Consortium and a Portuguese Consortium are also under consideration. The sad flip side to this story is the University of Southern California which went it alone and was forced to end the German major.

Institutions clinging to outdated practices cannot fulfill their educational missions. Governing boards must direct the process of change by standing up to departments that to maintain inefficient and unpopular programs. Raising an honest discussion on the efficacy of a degree program does not diminish the value of the academic discipline. By carefully analyzing the functions each program serves, and allocating resources accordingly, colleges and universities can broaden student access without sacrificing quality of curriculum.

Armand Alacbay is Program Officer for Trustee Affairs of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.


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