Sunday, November 30, 2008
A Book Waiting to be Written
How to Steer a College Through a Recession and Make It Stronger
Okay, it's not as catchy as it could be. Maybe something like Lindsay Lohan's Illustrated Weight Loss Secrets and How Colleges Can Navigate Recessions. Admittedly, it's a bit clunky, but at least it would sell. Or maybe Walk it Off, Loser! A No-Nonsense Guide to Colleges' Sucking It Up, to capture the Regnery Press demographic.
Whatever the title, there's a book waiting to be written about higher ed and funding cycles.
Over the break, I had a chance to connect with Grad School Friend who has since left the academy and is now developing a remarkable project for a wildly successful company you've heard of. (Hint: it rhymes with Schmoogle.) As we caught up and I regaled him with stories of the repeated, and accelerating, cycles of cuts with which I'm dealing, he mentioned that it seemed like in bad years, higher ed gets killed, and in good years, it only treads water. It never actually gains.
While there are exceptions here and there, it struck me as essentially accurate. The cycle is decline-plateau-decline-plateau-decline, with the plateaus getting progressively shorter. With each 'recovery,' only a fraction of the previous decline's loss is restored, and then another (and worse) decline starts.
(To see the objective truth of this, just look at the data on adjunct percentages in higher ed over the last thirty years. This isn't just me.)
The macro story is familiar and well-documented. And the story about adjuncts has been pretty well told, even if to remarkably little effect. But the story of how to actually manage from within – of actual improvements generated internally despite what amounts to a nasty fiscal headwind – remains largely unwritten.
That may be because it's fiction, but I choose not to believe that. Even when the external trends are vicious and unrelenting, they can be handled well or badly.
In the absence of a serious, systematic look at handling funding cuts, a sort of unofficial playbook has developed. You go after the softest stuff first – travel funding, professional development, food, a few ceremonies. When that falls short, which it always does, you look at tuition increases, program fees, early retirements, shrinkage-by-attrition (that is, more adjuncts), consolidating administrative positions, larger class sizes, and skimping on physical plant to the extent that you have the option. (That's usually much less helpful than many people think, since capital funding isn't interchangeable with operating funding.) If that still isn't enough, then you go to layoffs and program eliminations.
There's a certain short-term logic to that playbook, and I was struck at a recent statewide meeting of my counterparts at how uniform it is across institutions. Even without consulting with each other, we all pretty much have the same set of moves, and in pretty much the same order. It's essentially a move from 'least resistance' to 'next least' to 'next least' and so on. And that's true regardless of personal inclination, political ideology, or local institutional culture. The gravitational pull of structural imperatives simply overpowers everything else.
I've been thinking a lot about the car companies, and about to what degree they foreshadow the fate of higher ed. Their breathtakingly stubborn refusal to contemplate the long term has caught up with them, leaving even the relatively more thoughtful ones unable to contemplate much more than short-term survival.
Luckily, the comparison is imperfect in many ways. Most obviously, there's no clear Toyota or Honda in higher ed. Yes, the proprietaries are out there, and some of them have some momentum, but even after some pretty impressive increases they remain a relatively small piece of the picture. Education is harder to import than cars are, particularly for those who prefer education in a face-to-face style. The demand for higher education remains as high as it has ever been. In direct contrast to the car companies, our 'sales' actually improve during recessions, since they reduce the opportunity cost of time. (Put differently: if you can't find work anyway, what better use of your time than improving your credentials?) And with the heavy reliance on adjuncts, we certainly can't be accused of indifference to labor costs.
Still, it's hard to think long-term thoughts on an accelerating treadmill. That's the commonality.
I don't usually address philanthropists quite so blatantly, but desperate times, desperate measures, and all that. What we really need is some philanthropist to sponsor a comparative study on intelligent ways of handling ever-more-restrictive budgets. Pay some carefully-chosen people (hi!) to go around the country looking at different public colleges and how they've responded to periodic shortfalls. Gather the best practices, publicize them (preferably with a catchy title), and host discussions on how to improve even on those. In other words, get some folks who are in positions to understand off the treadmill, and give them the resources to take serious stock.
I'm concerned that the alternative to that, or something akin to it, is continued reliance on the same old short-term playbook. And I just don't like where that leads.
Now, I'm not in favor of hitting up the Holy Roman Emperor for change, but I do wonder about whether we can only learn from the last 30 years or can also profitably (ahem) turn to the more distant past to learn a thing or two. What do you think?
I'd be curious how one would write a book on how a college could emerge stronger from a recession. If I were to write such a book, it would be more of a little pamphlet that would start with the advice: "Don't be a sucker!" Every time your State asks you to do more with less, you figure out how accomplish it, leading politicians to the conclusion that they can cut your budget without incurring much harm. Instead, don't play the game. Cut class sections in direct proportion to the budget cut you have received, and then see if your legislators can handle the result. Sure, you will be personally pained at the thought of leaving so many students behind, but in the end, you will benefit. The final trick is to collaborate with your brethren so that nobody breaks ranks.
Of course, the other option would be to run, "Adjunct CC". Always replace a full-time faculty member with adjuncts who do not cover enough classes to earn benefits (my institution uses the incredibly unfortunate term, "backfilling" for this practice). Get rid of all the counselors and student services folks, as well as those troublesome and costly vocational/technical programs. Your budget will be balanced in no time!
Including the comments -
"backfilling" and slicing
away the counseling "pork."
1. It shouldn't be surprising to you that every school follows essentially the same playbook. A broader view would tell you that these are "good business practices" and that this is another area where your decisions may not be unlike those in "industry." (i.e. you aren't that different).
2. Actually, I take that back on this: you are different from the "Big Three." They saw the future. They even, in pockets, tried to adapt to it. They unfortunately were hamstrung in their ability to adapt to the
"long-term future" by their decisions (and union contracts) by their "long-term past."
3. 2 being said, I am curious how schools with unions will fare compared to schools without. (i.e, GM compared to Toyota.) Toyota and Honda, and Hyundai are flexible in large part because of their ability to maneuver. The fewer binding issues, the less "bound" they are.
4. Rather than a book on how to survive a recession (or even come out ahead) how about a book (actually, a publishable academic article) that sets out to identify a series of metrics that colleges and universities can use to measure their success. I think the "adjunct" measure is a bit overplayed. Is that truly a measure of the effectiveness of a school?
And thankful am I, who don't have this burden on my plate any more. Not gloating; perhaps more useful now as a result.
I'm still working on the meat-grinder project. It's still in mind for me, every day... and for a lot of my peers who appear to "no longer be in the Academy". To bend the metaphor to the breaking point, what I think is happening is that we're out here trying to build a different menu entirely.
But cultural engineering of long-surviving institutions from the outside is barely faster than fixing them from the inside: It will be a while before alternatives begin to appear, and even when they do they may not be recognized as alternatives.
Just hold on. Write the book. Think about the boundaries of institutions, about what happens to the people who are out here in the para-academic world, who have "failed" by escaping, but share the values and a yearning for the life of the mind no longer available to them on the inside.
Philanthropy, and not just the kind using financial capital but perhaps the other kinds, is probably the right way to be watching as you pace the widow's walk.
Similarly, I no longer buy the spin about state budgets. Corrected for inflation, as I worked out after reading a Kevin Carey article (the relevant tables are about midway down the page), state funding for one R1 fell from $6400 per student to $5000 per student (22%) in 38 years. In contrast, tuition rose from $3200 to $10,000 in that same period of time.
Those tuition increases are not making up for that cut in state funding. (To be fair, I think a big part of the drop in per-student funding took place relatively recently in that state, but that does not change my conclusion.)
In contrast, the numbers I have seen for my CC indicate that we get a tiny fraction of what that R1, or one closer to us, gets per student and that our share per student has fallen dramatically. Unlike a university, we cannot become more selective except by not offering enough classes.
I have no idea if public 4-year schools or CCs have similar promises, but I'm curious if it would even be possible to cut back on sections in proportion to the decrease in state aid. Are there other barriers (besides the obvious PR fiasco, which I imagine is the intended result of such a decision)? It certainly seems like an effective, if painful, way of making clear the costs of cutting funding.
"When so many economists are turning to a discussion of the New Deal should we refer only to business models for higher ed. from the last 30-40 years?"
An interesting point. Are you referring to the 2004 study done by UCLA economists that showed the New Deal actually EXTENDED the Depression by 7 years?
(Don't believe me? http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/FDR-s-Policies-Prolonged-Depression-5409.aspx?RelNum=5409 )
"Are there other barriers (besides the obvious PR fiasco, which I imagine is the intended result of such a decision)?"
Interesting point. I would suspect that the PR issue wouldn't be a fiasco, as much as a tactic. A way of applying pressure on the state legislature much the way School Boards do when they threaten to take away school buses as their first action when taxpayers refuse to part with their money.
When the people with power thought of public education as a public good, then funding was pretty darned decent. Increasingly, though, education is figured as a private good.
I wonder how much of this change has to do with changing priorities of the boomers?
I simply think that there's something to saying, "Hey wait a minute! If crappy conservative economics got us into this bind in the first place, maybe we should try something a little different and actually go all out by investing in higher ed. for a better educated, more egalitarian society!"
But nobody's really interested, 'cause we've accepted the premises the conservatives shoved down out throats. Academics of the world: RESIST!
You have more students than you have space, especially in high-demand, high-cost segments like Nursing.
The vocational classes are strict cost/benefit for your students. They've spoken -- the costs are much lower than the benefits. You've got some wiggle room there. Bonus -- the closer you can bring tuition to the actual costs of educating students, the less you have to lose per student and the more students you can serve.
The more systemic problem is that a high school degree is now essentially worthless. This will drive enrollment, student apathy in nontechnical courses, and faculty burnout.*
If you want more money, lobby with alumni. Legislators are like most folks; people respond to other people. Every department has to have a half-dozen success stories; track them down, give 'em mileage and dinner, and have them speak at the hearings for 5 mins each.
Your fundamental problem is that there is a gap between the cost of educating a student and the tuition he or she pays. If your budget is cut, you are being told to educate fewer students. Make this point clearly in your reports to the legislature, then follow through. Start with the high cost gap classes the local middle and upper middle kids take more of -- they actually do have other options, and legislators care more about them.
*note that this is quite compatible with using adjuncts like Kleenex.
"My kid can't go to BNU like I did" is a powerful argument to legislators who went to BNU only because of its athletic success.
Local CC can't pull that off. What Local CC can do, however, is say that it lacks the resources to find enough qualified adjuncts to teach the extra N students who showed up (either because qualified people don't exist or won't work for the going pay) or has run out of classroom space.
For what it's worth, our CC guarantees some of its schedule but does not guarantee that every student can get into any class. But we try....
Now *that's* interesting.
I wonder how Chuck Schumer, Barney Frank, and Chris Dodd like being called "conservatives?"
And I wonder how a "democrat" controlled congress, and a center-left administration, were so adamant about "conservative economics" in the first place . . .
And *why* is government intervention needed to prop up monopolies?
Didn't our leftist econ profs always tell us that it was *capitalist* economics and the *lack* of proper government controls that led to monopolism?
"Frank, Jessie, here come the Pinkertons!"
. . . but those darned railroads were, after all, "Too Big To Fail" (tm) . . .
TBTF: now *there's* a free market capitalist tenet if I hever heard one!