Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Pricing By Major

A moment of heresy…

What if tuition for different majors was priced according to what it cost to run them? Right now, most colleges charge a flat tuition rate for full-time students, regardless of their course of study. (To be fair, sometimes there are ‘lab fees,’ but these don’t even begin to approach paying for the cost differential.)

Some majors require a great deal of money – nursing, for example, or music. Both require low student/teacher ratios, lots of expensive equipment, and a surprising amount of dedicated space. Other majors – history, English, math – are almost entirely “chalk and talk” classes, which allow for higher student/teacher ratios, and which require almost no dedicated equipment. As it stands, the history majors are effectively subsidizing the nursing majors. (In fact, the college is breaking even on the history majors and losing money on the nurses.)

As a consequence, we have a constant backlog of students for the nursing and music programs, with plenty of good seats still available in the chalk-and-talk majors.

What if…we priced tuition differently by major? If you want a plain-vanilla degree just to get ahead at work, psychology or history should work just fine. If you want one of the boutique majors, pay a boutique price. As long as the financial aid people don’t choke on it, we wouldn’t really be limiting access; we’d simply be harnessing market forces to settle an allocation problem, which is one thing market forces do very, very well.

Would more students rush into the cheaper majors? Probably, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather a student complete a history major than take two semesters of nursing and drop out. Leave the boutique courses to the truly dedicated. The beauty of pricing is that it’s adjustable; if too many students are scared away, the premium could always be reduced.

The same principle could be applied to ‘honors’ degrees. Since honors sections run much smaller than regular sections, charging extra seems reasonable. Again, we’d have to make sure the financial aid people don’t have an issue, but those students who qualify academically and are willing to pay extra should have the option for, well, premium service.

Thinking ahead, this may not be a bad way to entice the upper-middle classes to take a fresh look at community colleges for their less-ambitious offspring. If Buffy doesn’t know what she wants to be, but doesn’t want to miss out on small classes, she suddenly has an option. The extra income for the community college could help with the chronic budget issues. Hmm…

I know it’s heresy, since community colleges are supposed to focus single-mindedly on lower-income students, but I’ve noticed that the public services used by the middle and upper classes tend to get better budgets than those reserved for the poor. If we want to provide the best possible service to the poor, we may need to attract some of the better-off to pay for it.

Just a thought…

Monday, January 24, 2005

Low-Hanging Fruit

I’m beginning to feel like the Typhoid Mary of budget cuts. My previous school started a downward spiral financially just as I went into administration; I had to lay off a friend before I left, which still ranks as one of my least favorite things to do, ever. Now, the community college to which I escaped is starting to feel a real pinch. Annual double-digit health care cost increases, combined with several years of flat state aid and county aid rising only at the rate of inflation, are taking their toll.

(Note to Republicans: if Clinton’s health care plan had passed, we wouldn’t be in this pickle. Just a thought…)

So now I’ve watched two different kinds of college deal with belt-tightening. While this doesn’t even begin to approach the comparative work I cried out for in my last entry, it’s more than I’ve read anywhere else, so here goes. (Keep in mind, these are a for-profit technical college and a community college – the costs faced by a research institution are very different.)

The first things to go are ‘discretionary’: travel, journal subscriptions, office parties. Nobody can get terribly upset about these – you can always make the office party potluck --- but they don’t get you very far. A flexible freeze (slush?) on hiring comes next, assuming that hadn’t already been done. These are no fun at all, and much less efficient than they might seem. You’re locking in the most expensive employees and freezing out their cheaper alternatives, thereby ratcheting up your average age (and health care costs). You’re also preserving your existing staff imbalances in amber, which is never a good idea.

‘Release time,’ or course reductions offered faculty to work on other projects, usually gets axed. While it’s tempting to look at release time as featherbedding, most of what I’ve seen it used for has been more than legit. The problem with cutting release time is that the tasks for which it was used still exist; it’s just that they suddenly go uncompensated. Typically, the high performers were the ones with release time, since they were the ones who could be trusted not to treat it as a sinecure. In essence, then, the high performers wind up with what amount to pay cuts, the low performers chuckle with cynical wisdom, and those in between do the math. After a couple rounds of this, good luck getting anyone to volunteer for projects.

(Release time also falls prey to Dilbert Budgeting. It’s usually budgeted as a fraction of a professor’s salary. If a professor who makes 50k usually teaches ten courses a year, a reduction of one course per semester is budgeted at 10k. In reality, the cost is the cost of replacing her with adjuncts for those two courses, which is closer to 3k. Where the other 7k goes, nobody knows. Sucked into the void, as we used to say in the 80’s.)

Minimum enrollments for sections to not get cancelled usually increase, although these changes are easier to declare than to enforce. (A ‘section’ is one timeslot for a course. We might run 30 sections of General Psychology in a semester.) While it sounds like good discipline to say No More Small Sections, the reality is that the smaller sections usually exist for a reason – the only section available for night students, say, or a graduation requirement, or everything else is full. A little belt-tightening here can yield a slight benefit, but it’s harder than it sounds. (Student preferences are harder to change than faculty preferences, contrary to popular belief. I’ve had faculty volunteer to run Friday classes, we’ve scheduled them, and five students sign up. As long as students all want the same timeslots, new efficiencies will be hard to find.)

Usually, we also start to put the brakes on expensive technology purchases as well, which probably saves more than everything else listed so far. It works brilliantly for a year, but you can’t really go beyond that without seriously impacting your programs.

At the for-profit, job descriptions started to change. Just as I was leaving, promotion criteria for faculty were being revised to include helping the Admissions department recruit students. At the community college, the union contract is devilishly specific about job duties, so this kind of move (whatever its wisdom) is largely precluded.

(Larger schools always add ‘deferred maintenance’ to the list. Gotta admit, this has always struck me as opaque. It sounds better than ‘let the campus go to seed,’ I guess, but the reality is that it usually means ‘start hitting up donors for new buildings, and don’t work on the old ones until the new ones are built.’ I’ve heard administrators, in public, admit that this category exists mostly to bluff unions. At the community college, we have too few buildings for anyone to take this bluff seriously.)

These are the low-hanging fruit. They’ve mostly been picked by now. The next steps are much uglier – phasing out smaller programs, administrative consolidation (again, looks good on the outside, until you see the work involved…), combining academic departments, etc. With each of these, someone’s ox is being gored. Not necessarily a bad thing, but far more conflictual than the earlier measures. In a tenure-based environment, conflicts have a way of lingering.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Missing the Obvious

As a discipline-trained academic (as opposed to an Ed.D.), delving into the literature on academic management has been a shock. Most of it is simply dreadful: every initiative is fully successful, everybody cooperates with everybody else, and everybody seems to think that saying “you need a sense of humor” constitutes some kind of insight. Smart, classically-trained people should know better.

Even worse, almost every published article deals with what social scientists call an ‘n’ of one. In other worse, every case is unique. If the title is “Rethinking Diversity: The xxxx Initiative at East Ishkabibble State,” you can bet that the author works at East Ishkabibble State. The closest thing to ‘comparative’ work is anthologies of first-person accounts, with an introduction lauding the successes of all and sundry.

I can understand the CYA imperative, but really, most of this stuff is appallingly useless. For example, I recently ran across a Jossey-Bass volume called “Dimensions of Managing Academic Affairs in the Community College,” comprised of articles by various administrators across the country. It has articles on managing conflict (“many aspiring deans don’t realize that conflict is inevitable”), leading change (“change brings resistance”), and making difficult decisions (“deans should acquire a habit of examining the aspects of different situations before making a decision.”) Ya think?

Nothing on how to handle reduced resources, top-heavy faculties, budget cuts, external grants, or staff. Amazing.

Budget cuts, in a tenure-based institution, are unbelievably ugly. With health insurance premiums going up by double digits every year, and with state aid flat, the trend line for our budgets is bad and getting worse. Most of our costs are either fixed (physical plant) or increasing (salaries, health insurance, etc.). Education is, by definition, labor-intensive, and most of the labor is either adjunct (and therefore too cheap to cut) or tenured (and therefore bulletproof). Toner, paper, and the like just don’t add up to much, and any cuts made in those areas would probably creep back into the budget anyway, since they’re necessary to get anything done.

I would LOVE to hear how other schools have dealt with budget cuts. Apparently, this would involve inventing an entirely new literature. Makes ya wonder.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Love is Gross!

"Love is gross!" Thus spoke The Boy the other day when I got home and kissed The Wife.

The Wife wanted to correct him, but I didn't. At his age, he's entirely correct. Let him learn otherwise, later.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hierarchy is an Amplifier

Nothing quite brings home to me the Rashomon-like differences in perspectives among faculty as effectively as a large-scale faculty meeting. This week I emceed the division meeting, in which the 80-plus full-time faculty pepper me with questions for about an hour. (Okay, maybe about 65, discounting the no-shows, but still…)

Tenure, apparently, loosens the tongue. Professors who have been here for 30 years or more referred to the college variously as a mall, a factory, a business, and, mystifyingly, a gang bang. Questions ranged from the choice of paint colors for the walls (“it’s so dreary, no wonder enrollment is going down!”) to how many offices a memo should go through before reaching a professor’s mailbox (the preferred answer was four, for reasons unknown to me), to appeals to class snobbery. I tried to maintain that ever-so-slightly-distant pose that allows a manager to acknowledge an issue without actually validating it, which is more tiring than it looks.

In a sense, the performance of showing concern without directly acknowledging that there is anything to be concerned about is one of the central skills of administration. It’s not lying, really; it’s something closer to discretion. While it probably isn’t a great deal of fun to watch, the alternative could be disastrous. Imagine if I adopted absolute candor as my rhetorical strategy: “I know where you’re going with that comment, you underperforming cretin, and if it weren’t a felony I’d choke you with my bare hands.” “The fact that you’re even here to ask that question suggests that the bar must have closed early.” Not good. The principle that hierarchy is an amplifier would mean that a comment that would go unnoticed from a tenured professor would get endlessly repeated, distorted, and taken out of context, coming from a dean. It’s very much like politics, except that I’m not elected by the faculty. I have to keep them happy enough that they’ll focus on teaching, rather than on institutional politics, but I also have to keep my VP happy, since it’s in his power to send me packing.

About forty years ago, Tom Wolfe wrote an essay called “Mau-Mauing the flak catchers,” about a hapless bureaucrat in hush puppies whose job it was to absorb the ritual abuse dished out by discontented community groups, preparatory to hiring the more employable ones for government jobs. Deaning isn’t exactly like that – I rarely get to hire – but there’s certainly a resemblance.

Classes start Tuesday. I look forward to the relative calm.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Thoughts on Publishing

Over the break, I had several opportunities to catch up with some old friends, most of whom are in academia in various ways. Naturally, we talked some shop, and I picked up a few things from them.

One of the most basic, and this is more pressing outside of the community-college sector, is the really fundamental mismatch between what tenure committees take publishers to signify and what they actually signify.

In the humanities and social sciences, book publishing is absolutely part of the game for tenure. (In the physical sciences, it’s all about the journals.) Getting a book published is a milestone on the road to tenure, particularly if it is published by a ‘reputable’ press. The theory is that publishing houses have to be relatively picky, so if someone’s work passes muster there, it must be good, whether or not a particular department can see it.

The theory has become false over the last ten years or so, but very few departments (or institutions) have adjusted accordingly. With the precipitous drop in book-buying by academic libraries, and the precipitous drop in subsidies to publishers by universities, publishers have had to recalibrate their criteria from something like academic merit to something closer to salability.

Salability is fine, as far as it goes, but it has much more to do with fashion, established names, and ease of marketing than it does with academic merit. A well-researched and well-written monograph on an esoteric topic by a no-name author just won’t sell as much as a reheated compilation of occasional pieces by a Name. Some publishers have adopted a blanket policy of not publishing dissertations or ‘first’ books, having noted that neither sells especially well. No job without experience, no experience without a job.

While this shift is economically rational for the individual publisher, over the long term, we’re eating our young. By raising the bar for tenure in the first place, then raising the bar for publication, we’re making it ever harder for new people to break in. This is partially by design – if they break in, we’d have to PAY them – but mostly by negligence.

Journal articles come closer to the ‘academic merit’ criterion, since any given issue can contain a dozen articles; as long as one or two grab attention, the rest can be merely well-executed. Still, even there, I’ve noticed a distressing trend towards ‘special issues,’ and the same names popping up in the same journals over and over again.

Departments (and institutions) need to recognize that publication simply doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It could, if institutions were willing to pony up the cash for library book purchases and publication subsidies, but I don’t see that happening. The other alternative I could see would involve the web – since the physical cost of web publishing is close to zero, I don’t know why a purer ‘academic merit’ standard couldn’t hold there. Long term, that will probably happen. In the meantime, though, we’re losing a generation.