“Less can be better” is not what you usually hear from higher education. Instead, the drums beat steadily for more. For public institutions, “more” typically means more tax dollars, more tuition and more fees. For students, that means more to pay, more loans and more years of debt. It would be one thing if increased spending were necessary, or were leading to better results. But it’s not.
In-state tuition and fees jumped an average of 143 percent at South Carolina’s public colleges and universities between 1999 and 2008. During the same period, inflation increased 29 percent. Capital appropriations also rose. From fiscal year 2002 to 2008, S.C. public universities spent a cumulative $264 million of state capital appropriations.
When it comes to capital costs in particular, “more” can mean wasteful spending on new buildings and classrooms that are underutilized. Consider a recent University of South Carolina memo about course scheduling. It cites university policy “to use its instructional space as judiciously as possible.” So far, so good.
But the memo continues: “A reasonable distribution throughout the day is comprised of 10% of the University’s classroom instructional minutes at 8:00 am-8:59 am and 10% at 4:00 pm-4:50 pm. Friday classroom instructional minutes should also represent 10% of the overall classroom use” (emphasis added). In other words, USC—like many schools—essentially fails to encourage normal use of the buildings on Fridays.
According to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, the average classroom at a S.C. public university is used only 27 hours per week. And even when the room is in use, the teaching space is not used efficiently: An available seat in that classroom will have a student in it, on average, less than 18 hours each week.
Thus, the instructional space funded by taxpayers and students sits empty through huge stretches of the working week. Why put up new buildings, when existing ones are not used efficiently?
Rethinking how we use buildings could improve educational quality, too. Notoriously, the college academic week stops short of Friday afternoon: The party is on Thursday night. Instead of sending the message that being a student is only a part-time job, administrators should help create a campus culture that emphasizes hard work, creative thinking and entrepreneurship—precisely those skills necessary to excel in the global economy.
By contrast, many students have learned to skate by. The National Survey of Student Engagement reveals that nearly half the students at USC spend 10 hours or less each week studying. Only 16 percent study more than 20 hours. Things aren’t much better at other public colleges and universities.
Serious students suffer, too, from bad administration of classroom space. Using building space more efficiently would allow required courses to be scheduled throughout the day, instead of crowding them in between 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Inflexible course scheduling also makes it harder for students to graduate. The average six-year graduation rate for students who started at USC in 2003 was 69 percent; the average four-year graduation rate was 46 percent; for Coastal Carolina, those figures were 46 percent and 22 percent; for Lander, 41 percent and 26 percent. At least part of the reason it’s taking students longer to graduate is inefficient management of classroom space and inefficient course scheduling.
Imagine a different picture: Schools won’t pour money into new buildings and more administrators. Instead, classes will be scheduled from Monday morning through late Friday afternoon, with some classes in the evenings as well. If the budget expands anywhere, it will be to hire and support more faculty, who in turn will be able to teach more students using existing resources more effectively. A culture of responsibility will replace the part-time Tuesday-to-Thursday attitude many students bring to their coursework. Retention and graduation rates will improve. Public higher education can emerge from this bitter economic climate more productive, agile and effective. The public needs to be vocal in its demands for tight fiscal responsibility. Trustees and policymakers need to scrutinize the use of existing buildings—and the scheduling of academic work—before approving capital projects and budgets. And administrators need to have the courage to build a culture of academic success instead of more nearly empty buildings.