Friday, January 30, 2009

 

Efficiency and Mission

A few days ago we got word of the latest round of state funding cuts. I've literally lost track of the number of cuts we've taken this year, but the cumulative impact is drastic. Worse, we got the first inkling of the likely cut for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, and it will make this year's cuts look minor.

Given a reluctance to pass the brunt of the cuts on to the students in the form of tuition/fee increases, we've cut spending dramatically, and are readying to cut even more. What makes this interesting is that we've hit the inflection point at which a difference of degree becomes a difference of kind.

Every part of the college has taken hits: athletics, academics, student life, marketing, everybody. On the academic side, until now we've mostly been able to get by with the usual playbook: cut travel, replace departing full-time faculty with adjuncts, and subject any purchase requests to Inquisition-level questioning. We've put out the call for voluntary unpaid leaves, efficiency improvement suggestions, and the rest of the usual tricks. The brunt of the impact of the cuts so far has fallen on the evergreen disciplines -- English, history, etc. -- since it's easier to find adjuncts there than in other parts of the curriculum.

We've hit the limits of that approach, and now we're gearing up for some not-very-much-fun conversations about program eliminations. Over the next few months, we'll be looking at whose programs to cut, and therefore, who to lay off. Instead of giving everybody in the boat smaller rations, we'll start throwing some people overboard to save the rest.

Perversely enough, this actually bodes well for the evergreens. Every degree program has an English comp requirement, so there's no way we'd eliminate the English department. Certain disciplines are ubiquitious throughout the curricula, cheap to teach, and popular with students: psychology, history, sociology. Math, like English, is universally required, and relatively cheap to teach (though it's not terribly popular). While these areas can be relatively easy to water down, to a point, they simply can't be eliminated.

But the occupational programs with one or two full-time faculty, few or no adjuncts, low enrollments, and significant capital costs are in serious trouble. Those areas can't really be watered down, since they're already pretty much running at skeleton crew level (and adjuncts would be hard to find anyway). There, either we do the program or we don't. And if we don't, even tenure won't save you.

In the popular imagination, hard-headed reality dictates that occupational programs are more worthwhile than the 'fluffy' academic stuff. The popular imagination is wrong. Actually, the occupational programs are far more expensive for us to run. The only way we can sustain them, to the extent we do, is by cross-subsidizing them with profits from the 'fluffy' academic courses. History subsidizes Nursing. When we come under extreme economic pressure, we go back to basics, and that means the liberal arts. They're the only parts of the college that pay for themselves. That may seem like a betrayal of public purpose, but if we don't survive, we won't serve any public purpose at all. If you want the boutique-y stuff, I say to the taxpaying public, feel free to pay for it. In the meantime, we'll do what we have to do.

Of course, we'd rather avoid the problem altogether by improving revenues, which necessarily involves increasing enrollments. (I don't see aid improving anytime soon, and the philanthropic sector isn't recession-proof, either.) Increasing enrollments happens in two ways: increased admissions and better retention of those who are already there. The recession is giving us increased admissions, and that helps. (When the job market tanks, the opportunity cost of going back to school drops.) But improving retention is harder.

Simply put, each additional retention gain is harder than the one before it. Each one becomes more resource-intensive, as you move from simple stuff (getting the course schedule right) to harder stuff (improving financial aid and the bookstore) to the really expensive stuff (tutoring, academic support, increased counseling). Each new layer of retention is more expensive and difficult than the one before it. At a certain point, additional retention isn't financially worthwhile.

As with programs, so with students. At a certain point, the lifeboat is full.

The numbers on this are pretty clear, and the short-term logic is pretty tough to counter. But there's that matter of 'mission.' The point of a community college, first and foremost, is to serve people who don't have other options. We don't turn away people with other options, of course -- the whole point of open admissions is that you don't turn away anybody with a demonstrated ability to benefit -- but the primary reason we're here is to help the folks who most need it.

By definition, though, the needy are inefficient. A student who shows up prepared for college-level work, passes everything the first time without tutoring, and has his personal life together is remarkably cheap to educate, especially in the liberal arts. A student who has academic skills deficits, who needs counseling, and who attends part-time for several years is much higher-maintenance, and therefore more expensive.

When times are relatively flush, we can do some justice to both efficiency and mission. Now, we're being forced to choose efficiency. Fortuitously enough, the lowest-maintenance students also tend to be the ones most likely to take the traditional transfer-oriented liberal arts classes, so we're being pushed in the same direction by different forces. The stars are aligning for a back-to-basics movement, and an upscaling of our student body.

I'm just concerned that too much efficiency compromises our reason to exist.

Comments:
Schools or Prisons: If the state cuts budgets for one, they had better increase budgets for the other!
 
Anonymous: do we get to vote?

DD, great post. This is exactly the problem that we're all facing now, and a reminder that the Evergreens pay for themselves is well-timed, at least for me.

Here at state-funded-U, we are expecting departments to be combined and/or cut, and tt faculty are losing sleep, worrying that their jobs will also be cut by some maniac in the state legislature. Me? I'm hoping we get to vote people off the island, but I don't think that's going to happen.
 
The evergreens may "pay for themselves" but you don't need someone diagraming sentences for you while you're a heart attack. Losing a few hundred Business or English majors won't hurt the economy or get people killed. But I'd bet that the loss of 100 nurses from your local area would be like a nuclear bomb going off in your health care system. The same is true of radiology, med tech, respiratory therapy and a whole host of other allied health programs. The numbers are small but the impact is enormous.

The idea that transfer oriented liberal arts students are a priori better students doesn't pass the sniff test for me. Also, I would argue that if you have to choose between offering a few extra sections of English and keeping the nursing program afloat that the needier students will benefit more from the nursing program - they are the most likely to suffer if health care costs continue to rise because of out of control workforce shortages (leading to increased wages for healthcare workers and increased insurance premiums).

That being said, before you cut programs I'd make a pitch to employers to help fund the vocational programs they benefit from. The philanthropic options in creating endowments are better for nursing than they are for English or History. You might have nursing alumni that you could go to for support. Getting either employer support or philanthropic dollars might get you through these lean times and allow you to preserve something that your community needs. Reconstructing after the dust is settled and funding returns to more normal levels is more difficult than maintaining what you have.
 
The evergreens may "pay for themselves" but you don't need someone diagraming sentences for you while you're a heart attack. Losing a few hundred Business or English majors won't hurt the economy or get people killed. But I'd bet that the loss of 100 nurses from your local area would be like a nuclear bomb going off in your health care system. The same is true of radiology, med tech, respiratory therapy and a whole host of other allied health programs. The numbers are small but the impact is enormous.

The idea that transfer oriented liberal arts students are a priori better students doesn't pass the sniff test for me. Also, I would argue that if you have to choose between offering a few extra sections of English and keeping the nursing program afloat that the needier students will benefit more from the nursing program - they are the most likely to suffer if health care costs continue to rise because of out of control workforce shortages (leading to increased wages for healthcare workers and increased insurance premiums).

That being said, before you cut programs I'd make a pitch to employers to help fund the vocational programs they benefit from. The philanthropic options in creating endowments are better for nursing than they are for English or History. You might have nursing alumni that you could go to for support. Getting either employer support or philanthropic dollars might get you through these lean times and allow you to preserve something that your community needs. Reconstructing after the dust is settled and funding returns to more normal levels is more difficult than maintaining what you have.
 
Charge nursing students more. I've said it before, I'll say it again. Charge more for nursing classes; I guarantee you every single student in those classes would prefer to pay double or triple the tuition instead of not have access to the course.
 
How do the vocational programs fit into your students' academic programs? Are they able to get a degree and go directly into the field with, for instance, your nursing programs, or is that track a set of courses that transfer to a 4-year school, which finishes the program? If the students can't get a job in a vocational program immediately after finishing at the CC, does it matter if they take some of their (again, for example) nursing classes at the CC or if they wait until they transfer before taking all of them? I don't know how vocational programs are usually set up, and I'd be very interested in learning how they fit into the students' overall academic preparation.
 
Charge more for nursing! People who go through nursing programs actually have job prospects. If it costs more to teach them, charge them more. Sure, people will grumble, but they'll grumble if you cut nursing too.

Plus, you can always charge less later (rather than try to redevelop the program from scratch) in the unlikely event the budget crunch ever eases.
 
Ivory, I think part of DD's point might be that our CC's AS Nursing program requires a composition class and one at a university requires even more. That is why the English Dept can't be eliminated. Because major $$$ recovery requires eliminating tenured faculty lines by eliminating an entire program, any program (such as English or Math) that cannot be abolished is necessarily safe when Draco goes to work on the budget.

In contrast, if you are at a small college with 5 students studying radiology, where accreditation requires a licensed professional (or more) on staff to teach the core classes, no increase in tuition can cover the bottom line. When push comes to shove, and in some places the shove is getting pretty hard, that small program might be your best option, particularly if Another CC can double its enrollment with those 5 students and you can double your enrollment in respiratory therapy with their 5 students.

"Each new layer of retention is more expensive and difficult than the one before it. At a certain point, additional retention isn't financially worthwhile."

True, indeed practically a tautology regarding "a certain point", but some new layers can be a win win. You can justify a tuition increase for something like a free tutoring center, and that center can also increase retention and thus generate additional revenue. CAN. YMMV
 
Considering the very high starting salaries and strong job demand for nurses, I doubt that the Nursing program is the one with low enrollment. (High costs per pupil? Yep. But not low enrollment.) If I had to guess, I'd put my money on industrial arts programs.

I agree with some of the other commenters: the Nursing students are going to have to pick up more of the tuition load themselves. If you're worried about the impact on poor students, approach some of your local hospitals and ask if they'd sponsor a sort of nursing ROTC: they help pay the student's tab, and the newly-minted nurse owes them X years of service. It puts more of the costs where the benefits are.

As for expensive but low-enrollment programs: Basically, it sounds like your students are voting with their feet. If only 10 students per year study in a given program, you are using a disproportionate amount of school resources for something that isn't in high demand from either students or employers. Time to let it go. And yeah, it is tough on the tenured faculty, who have probably been living for the last 20 years as if they had a job for life. But these are tough times for everyone, and the alternative is worse.
 
I vote for an education bailout. If the government can give those greedy bonus addicted pigs on wall street money, then the government can invest in keeping students globally competitive.

Anything in healthcare should not be such a burden on the college. This is one of the highest employment need areas with great starting salaries. Charge students more. Why should one progam be subsidizing another; this isn't a store chain, its an educational institution. I don't see pharmacy students complaining about the cost and in retail they don't make much more than RNs.
 
As a faculty member at a CC who teaches large classes (50 in Ethics, Intro to Philosophy and World Religions... grrrr) -- the economics are on our side. The fact of the matter is that the smaller technical programs have been subsidized by the less expensive and larger-classes for a long time. While the technical folks may have 20 students in a cohort -- I may teach 250 in a semester.

Really, students at CCs enroll in the classes they need. If a program isn't getting enrollments, perhaps it really isn't needed? At my CC the medical programs have long waiting lists, so they wouldn't be subject to cuts -- but, maybe it is ok to cut the programs that don't have a corresponding market need.
 
Hi DD,
I love your blog and I'm sad that I just discoverd it long after I did teach at a CC as an adjunct. I taught at a CC a few years ago and I'm sorry to say but I won't do that , I simply make more as an appraiser of art. I'm not sure why you wouldn't just go the route from the beginning of saying we're going to offer the following departments and that's that" History, English, Sociology, Spanish (a Language Dept) and be done with it because adding all of the those frilly depts just creates unnecessary sadness in the end. And I'm speaking as a Classics Ph.D candidate, so I know what it's like to come from a smaller dept and major in Art History, too. I guess I'm just confused as to why you would offer so much variety with the clear intent that you're going to eventually cut. I'm just concerned about what your library must look like!
Keep on writing!
 
Most of the commenters here seem oblivious to the fact that, in most states, it's not legal (or least against policy) to charge some students more than other students.

Good thing, too. Otherwise, an engineering education would be so cost prohibitive that we would go from having a "shortage" of engineers to having none.
 
During a budget crisis back in the 20th Century, our evergreen cc English Department was slated for the scrapheap--the plan was to send our comp and tech writing students up the road to State U where, it is said, graduate assistants are even cheaper than adjuncts.
 
Anon -- as versus the current far superior situation.

Not that I don't see your point, but one has to be very careful with subsidies. Sometimes they really help whoever's being subsidized, and that ends up really helping the community. And sometimes they just make it impossible to provide the service.
 
Isn't it possible to create schools within a college rather than departments in order to charge more tuition. I thought that is what graduate school does. Someone getting a Ph.D. in english is not going to pay the same tuition per year as someone going to medical school. It may take longer to get the Ph.D. and equal in cost, but there are separate rates for tuition.
 
On those last points about differential tuition: it all depends on the law (or regulations with the force of law) in your State. In the case of nursing, it also matters whether you are talking about a CC or a Uni.

In my state, all undergrads pay the same tuition but they do not all pay the same fees. There are special fees for labs and other classes that can, in principle, make one program much more expensive than another.

At a CC, nursing is an AS program. I don't think there is any reason why we have to charge the same fees for AS as we do for AA, just as universities can charge significantly higher fees for graduate and professional programs than they do for undergrad ones. We do, but there are lab and other fees that apply to nursing that don't apply to other AS or AA programs.
 
"Union rule" from National League of Nursing that require 1 faculty for every 10 students creates a difficult economic model for a CC. Extra fees for nursing students are used for extraordinary supply costs. I agree that double tuition would have little effect on RN enrollments.
 
Why does any state need TWO law schools or TWO medical schools, funded by public money? They don't. Duplication is waste.
 
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