The State of Higher Education Finances in 2021
The pandemic has accelerated a financial crisis already in the making at many American colleges and universities. With many universities already on unstable financial footing, and the pandemic now threatening many of their sources of revenue, institutions are having to turn to budget cuts to weather the storm.
The University of Akron made some of the deepest cuts seen so far in higher education to its full-time instructional staff in order to balance the budget. On July 15, the board of trustees voted to eliminate 178 positions, including 97 full-time faculty positions. What was described as a “budget bloodbath” is a frantic effort to correct its course before financial disaster strikes. This is a story Akron has seen before.
Some of its problems are demographic; others are self-inflicted wounds. In recent years, Akron has experienced an enrollment drop of 34% and an administration more than willing to spend frivolously on luxuries while cutting the positions that truly make a university. In 2015, it was an itemized list of over $950,000 in expenses on renovations of the presidential home, which included the infamous $556.40 olive jar. That same year, Akron would cut more than 200 positions in order to trim the budget.
Not all of its remedies are appropriate. While Akron has admirably reduced spending on administrative staff, the university has also saved money by increasing part-time instructional staff and steadily reducing full-time faculty appointments.
Full-time professors have a unique, essential, and irreplaceable role in instruction of students. Part-time adjuncts and lecturers, many times, are forced to work on multiple campuses without an office where they can reliably find time to mentor students. An investment in full-time faculty signifies dedication to the educational outcomes of students.
Administrative bloat does not appear to have been Akron’s problem. According to a website that tracks college spending, HowCollegesSpendMoney.com, the University of Akron has kept its administrative spending even with its peer institutions at $2,474 per student. Akron even manages slightly to outstrip its peer institutions in instructional expenditures by spending $12,656 per student on academic expenses. But deeper analysis reveals troubling decisions.
Between 2012 and 2018, the university made cuts across the board. After adjusting for inflation, salary outlays for office and administration support declined by 43%, management by 36%, business and financial operations by 29%, and instructional staff by 18%. In that same time, the number of positions for office and administration support decreased by 40%, management by 28%, business and financial operations by 24%, and instructional staff by 16%.
While it may appear as though the instructional staff has been harmed the least by the cuts, when broken down by the level of the instructor, it becomes clear that full-time faculty bore the brunt of it. From 2012 to 2018, the number of full-time professors (including assistant and associate professors) fell by 26%, and their salary outlays declined 25%. Meanwhile, the number of instructors and lecturers—none of whom are tenured or tenure track—rose 36%, and their salary outlays increased by 49%. In other words: Akron is cutting spending on full-time faculty to invest in less resourced and typically less experienced teaching assistants who may offer students a lower return on their tuition investment.
In order to meet the unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic, particularly declining enrollment, institutions of higher education must trim their budgets, which requires prudent and engaged leadership from the president and board of trustees. In order to continue providing the best possible education for the lowest price, the University of Akron must prioritize instruction in the budget in a manner that is real, not merely cosmetic. To do this, the university should focus on supporting full-time professors with the experience and knowledge needed to guide students well and professors who are available for students advising and mentoring. The colleges that emerge relatively unscathed from the present crisis will be the ones that prioritized academic excellence when cutting costs.
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