Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Thin Budgets in 30 Days

I mean this question sincerely and without snark.  

Are there models out there of public colleges that have managed to get better while shrinking and cutting costs significantly?

I like to say that I’ve never seen a college shrink its way to greatness, and that’s true.  But just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened.

I should clarify.  Some elite colleges stay small as part of their identity, and to maintain the exclusivity that gives them cachet.  (Williams, I’m looking at youuuuu…) That’s not what I’m looking for here.

If we assume that Nathan Grawe’s must-read book is largely correct, then community colleges and many public four-year colleges in the northeast and midwest are looking at sustained double-digit declines over the next decade, on top of the years of decline they’ve already experienced.  In these cases, shrinkage is not a matter of chasing exclusivity.

Managing decline can take many forms.

Ideally, of course, the fear of decline motivates innovation and eventual improvement.  That’s the Odessa College case, in which fear of closure led to a basic but markedly effective change in course scheduling that benefitted both its students and its budget.  Alternately, Amarillo College started from the premise of social justice, and made a series of changes that happened to redound to the benefit of its enrollment. (Full disclosure: I know Russell Lowery-Hart, the president there, and consider him a friend.)  In these cases, rather than managing decline, the colleges chose to remake themselves in pretty radical ways to change the equation. I consider that exemplary.

But it’s also rare.  It requires outstanding leadership, but also a sort of planetary alignment that isn’t present everywhere.  

The more common case involves sustained incremental cutting and watering-down.  That takes the form of replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, replacing administrators with contracted services, raising class caps, outsourcing campus functions, and the like.  As short-term measures, many of those make sense at first, and a few may make sense generally. But after the low-hanging fruit has been picked, the trends don’t stop. This approach assumes, whether consciously or not, that the hard times are temporary.  That might make sense in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but it’s delusional in the face of long-term demographic decline.

Over time, the decline tends to outpace the incremental cuts, and the college has to resort to layoffs.  Those are a nightmare for all involved.

Aside from the frustration and hand-wringing of the usual approach, there’s a lack of vision.  The challenge for each budget year is to keep doing essentially the same thing, but with less. But with long-term demographic decline, doing essentially the same thing guarantees continuing to get disappointing results.  As a long-term survival strategy, it’s exactly wrong.

Some colleges simply throw in the towel and either go out of business or merge with something larger in hopes of preserving at least some jobs.  I think of that as layoffs on steroids.

In the private sector, companies will sometimes decide to focus on a “core competency” and jettison what they consider peripheral.  But part of the point of community colleges is access. Yes, we prune the program offerings as enrollments and external conditions shift, but moving to just three or four majors would violate the purpose of the place.  (Btw, when I started at DeVry, it only offered five majors.) And as I’ve noted over the years, the most profitable programs are often not the most employable ones.

So this is an open call to my wise and worldly readers who work at community colleges, or at public four-year colleges with similar profiles.  Have you seen long-term demographic decline handled particularly well? If so, how? (And, if you’re able to say, where?)