Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Sunset Grants

This article is one of those think-tanky pieces that manages to mix the correct, the nearly-correct, and the wildly wrong in a seemingly coherent gumbo of its own. (It's about the cost and productivity spiral in higher ed.) It's worth checking out, though not only for the reasons the authors intend.

That said, though, there's an undeniable kernel of truth to its statement that

there is mounting evidence that a more prescribed path through a narrower range of curricular options leads to better retention, since advising is more straightforward, scheduling easier to predict, and students are less likely to get lost in the process. A narrower curriculum is more coherent, can be better focused on learning outcomes, and is actually preferred by many students. So an educationally effective undergraduate curriculum is also the most cost-effective curriculum.

This kind of bounced off me the first time I read it, but later, I couldn't get it out of my head.

Certainly it's true that many new programs don't so much draw new students into the college as slice the already existing student population thinner. And with each new program comes new stuff to keep track of, new sections that have to be run, new claims on resources, etc. It's that much worse when a new program requires dedicated lab space, expensive technology, and/or new support staff.

At most colleges, in my observation, curricular decisions are made by faculty, and budgetary decisions are made by administration. For example, at my college the Curriculum Committee approves (or doesn't) new degree and certificate programs. It does so based on perceived academic quality, combined with considerations of employability and/or transferability. It does not look at our ability to support the new program economically.

There are good reasons for that, but the gap plays out over time. New programs bring costs. When long-term commitments are made without reference to our ability to sustain them, it's unsurprising to see commitments gradually outstrip resources. There's also a structural bias in favoring of starting new programs, and against discontinuing old ones. This is especially true when you factor in the need to "teach out" a discontinued program -- in other words, to let the currently-enrolled students make it to graduation. By the end, you're running a series of very low-enrolled courses; the long-term savings doesn't start until you first eat a short-term cost.

Hmm. Short-term cost that leads to long-term savings, and more effective functioning. Hmm. However might we do that?


If only there were some sort of short-term stimulus money, something we could apply for to cover the costs of 'teaching out' programs we've decided to discontinue. A structural counterweight to the drive towards mission dilution. A way to keep some folks on the payroll a while longer, while still narrowing our focus to the things we do especially well.

Sunset grants, if you will. Cover the short-term 'hit' to college budgets from "teaching out" ancillary programs on the condition that they actually discontinue those programs, the better to focus over the long term on the core functions. Grants to redirect internal energies from, say, developing the umpteenth iteration of the latest fad, and towards the evergreens, like math.


If only we were in a year with a stimulus, when we had the ear of the President of the United States.

Oh, wait...

I thought they needed to phone a friend before writing

"... using the opportunity of faculty turnover to translate faculty lines into more productive uses. This doesn’t mean getting rid of full-time and tenure-track positions, but it might mean trading a senior tenured position in classics for two junior level assistant professors in first year writing courses.

as if that will reduce budget growth. It would if they had written "instructors" or "6-year non-renewable contract professors" (like the infamous "glorified postdoc" one Ivy was noted for in physics), but not if those two positions turn into senior tenured faculty in rhet/comp.

Similarly, although I agree with them on the big part of the budget that is not "instruction" (faculty or adjunct), they could have put a bit more thought into "Institutions also can put more resources into salaries if they find ways to reduce the explosive growth in benefits costs." Health care anyone?

I like your point (which I would translate into making new Federal startup funding contingent on looking for old phaseouts), but curricular phase out should be part of the plan when a new AS-type program is started. You know they don't last forever, but the highly qualified (and tenured?) faculty needed to accredit them do last forever unless you bite the bullet and eliminate them when you eliminate the program, which is allowed by some union contracts.
...and they say ageism is dead! Good deal, I say! Get rid them oldies and bring in two newbies!!
Our college has been doing that for years, Katie, although only as retirement replacements. You might not like the little detail that the growth in numbers means small or no raises, however.

Your other problem might be that faculty in your dream university job don't retire for 40 years, while those teaching a 5/5 load retire ASAP, once their retirement is fully funded after 25 or 30 years. The only limit I see that keeps the latter leaving earlier is eligibility for Medicare if a spouse does not have family group insurance until that point. CC faculty are often hired before age 30, and you aren't eligible for Medicare until you are 65 (or two years after you retire if you retire early).

So fixing health care would have an additional benefit for younger people - possible job openings due to early retirement.
That's kind of lump-of-labor fallacy-ish. Besides, the academic job market is long past the point where enough jobs could conceivably be found for new graduates. We're well into crazy town and have been for years.
Implementation is the key to decisions about ending programs. At my university, reducing the number programs was encouraged without any attention to the cost to deliver those programs. In some cases the same faculty could deliver multiple programs simultaneously (BS and grad programs, for example), so eliminating some programs in a department would not affect the total curricular cost, since the same profs would still be on the payroll. Such eliminations were encouraged nonetheless. The management reasoning is still not clear.

Summary: if the goal in eliminating programs is to reduce costs, then costs need to be taken into account during the decision.
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