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...