Monday, November 20, 2017

Road-Testing a New Paper

A new study suggests that colleges that want to improve their graduation and completion rates would do better to spend more on instruction than on financial aid.  

I’m thinking about that.  Let’s say that the operating budget for my division were increased by a million dollars on an ongoing basis.  What could that cover?  Conservatively, I could add:

3 new English professors
2 new math professors
4 new professors wherever they make the most sense
1 new librarian
And increased tutoring at the non-Lincroft locations

Meanwhile, we have enrollment of a little over 9,000 FTE.  If the million were divided evenly among the FTE’s, that would come out to about $111 per FTE.  An annual FTE is 30 credits, so that would come out to slightly under $4 per credit.  Our tuition and general fees right now come to $168.75 per credit for in-county residents.  

Would ten new faculty, plus increased tutoring, make a bigger difference than reducing tuition and fees from $168.75 to $165?

Probably.  It’s certainly worth testing…hint, hint...

The key is that there’s funding, and then there’s funding.  Although nearly all dollars are welcome, not all dollars are the same.

For example, “capital” money -- such as New Jersey’s Chapter 12 program -- can only be used for facilities; it can’t be used to pay the people who would work in those facilities.  Federal and state grants are for specific purposes, and can’t be repurposed.  (For example, the Title III grant Brookdale just received is earmarked for the purposes specified in the application.  It’ll help, but the rule that grant money has to “supplement, not supplant,” means that I can’t use it to hire, say, English professors.)  Philanthropic giving is often tied to specific uses.  Crossing the streams can lead to very bad outcomes.

The money that would enable hiring is “operating” money.  That’s also the hardest kind to find, by a longshot.  It’s the kind that mostly comes either from direct subsidies, which are increasingly out of fashion, or tuition and fees.  It’s the money that pays salaries.  

Right now, many colleges meet the difference between flat aid and increased costs through splitting the difference, charging more each year while cutting costs.  The new paper suggests that maybe we shouldn’t, and that instead, we should charge what we need to charge to keep the quality up.

In the very short term, of course, that would make my life infinitely easier.  But ethically, I’m uncomfortable with jacking up costs for students who are already struggling.  To the extent that a measure like “graduation rates” fails to distinguish among students, it may wind up greasing the skids towards even greater polarization.  We may get more bang for the buck by helping those who least need it, but that’s not why we’re here.  I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the mission in the pursuit of efficiency.

As a followup, it might be worthwhile to isolate the effects of the spending vs. cutting debate on low-income students specifically.  For any interested funders, I’d be happy to volunteer my campus for the “spending” side of the study...