Monday, July 24, 2017

Budgets and Bernie Mac

On The Bernie Mac Show, the late, lamented Bernie Mac had a recurring bit in which he’d show frustration or disbelief by just staring silently at the camera and tapping his fingers.  It slayed me every time.  His body language conveyed silently that he was somewhere between “can you believe this?” and “what the...?”  

Reading IHE”s piece yesterday about an analysis of budgetary “pass-throughs” of state budget cuts in the form of tuition increases had me in full Bernie Mac mode.  

The article is a summary of the results of a study of the effects on tuition at public colleges and universities when public funding was cut.  The article doesn’t mention community colleges, and the original study is paywalled, but my impression is that the study focused on four-year colleges and universities.

For me, this was the key paragraph:

State and local divestment accounted for 16.1 percent of tuition and fee increases paid by the average student since 1987. Disinvestment accounted for a greater share of tuition and fee increases more recently, though. It is responsible for 29.8 percent of the tuition and fee revenue increase since 2000 and 41.2 percent since 2008.

That lends itself to interpretation, of course.  One, offered by Jason Delisle, was:

Policy makers will still wonder why, if appropriations cuts really drive tuition higher, the pass-through rate isn’t 100 percent, said Delisle of AEI.

(stare at screen, tapping fingers)

Okay, I know that policy folk look at practitioners roughly the way that biologists look at butterflies, but I have to respond.  As someone who has spent the last decade dealing with flat or declining public funding at public colleges in two states, I can offer confidently that anyone who assumes that budgets have not been cut simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Take a look at the change in adjunct percentages since 1987, just for starters.  Why do you think colleges have moved so heavily in the direction of part-time faculty?  On my own campus, I’ve been authorized to replace fewer than half of the full-time faculty who’ve left over the last two years.  Why do you suppose that is?

It’s because adjuncts cost less.  That’s where much of the lost funding shows up.  To the extent that we offset “money not received” with “money not spent,” we reduce the amount we have to raise tuition and fees.

Of course, it’s not just adjuncts.  Look at offices run with fewer staff, tutoring centers with fewer tutors, or thirty-year-roofs in their fortieth years.  Deferred maintenance is another version of “money not spent,” until it abruptly has to be.  (For the DC pundit class to grasp this, just look at the Metro.)  Look at travel budgets, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  Look at the health insurance packages that employees get to pick from, and compare them to the plans from, say, ten years ago.  Look at “hiring freezes,” raises foregone, and position consolidations.

Then look at non-optional costs that have increased over the years, whether in compliance, IT, or mandatory student services.  As worthy as they are, they put pressure on everything else.

As I’ve been pointing out for years, colleges have handled flat or reduced support by splitting the difference between spending cuts and price increases.  

The contribution of this study, to my mind, is that it shows that the era of less painful cuts is over.  The steady increase in the “pass-through” rate shows that it’s getting harder to maintain a level of service without finding other revenue.  Anecdotally, that’s spot-on.  Shrinking a department from ten full-time faculty to nine is painful; shrinking it from three to two is much worse.  And as much as policy folk don’t want to hear it, the supply of good adjuncts is finite.  There comes a point at which the low-hanging fruit has been picked.  Barring some sort of sea change, I’d expect the pass-through rate to continue its rapid climb.  

Part of the reason I’ve written this column/blog for as long as I have is that I’m still struck by the absence of knowledgeable practitioner voices in the discourse around higher ed.  After all these years, it’s still true.  I understand the career politics behind that, but at some point, we who actually live this stuff need to speak up.  Bernie Mac’s frustration was funny, but ours isn’t.  We need to step up and speak the truth.  If we don’t, these ideological abstractions win by default, and we all suffer.