Better Universities at Less Cost

(Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.)

State legislatures, caught between the still-sluggish economy and the loss of federal stimulus funds, have been making large cuts to their university budgets: $400 million in North Carolina, more than $1 billion in California, and so on.

This is causing anguish among academics and politicians who claim the cuts will wreak havoc with the schools’ ability to educate and their states’ ability to attract employers.

Yet the budget cuts could be one of the best things to happen to public higher education in a long time. By making cuts strategically, schools can rid themselves of superfluous programs and become more focused and rigorous.

After all, private firms routinely take advantage of lean times to make themselves stronger through innovation, management efficiencies, such as consolidation, and the sale or closure of underperforming units. That same sort of tactical discipline should work equally as well in an academic environment that has seen almost nothing but growth since World War II.

So, what criteria should public university administrators use to improve education while reducing expenditures?

Some reductions are self-evident, such as cutting administrative bloat and delaying unnecessary construction projects. Other easy targets are redundant or low-enrollment courses.

In ordinary years, such measures would be sufficient. But not this year—the necessary reductions are enormous and much of the obvious fat was trimmed after the recession started taking its toll in 2008 and 2009.

Now, administrators must make difficult choices beyond the obvious ones mentioned above. Almost everything on campus should be questioned and re-prioritized, and some long-favored policies must be cast aside.

First, they should consider capping—and even reducing—enrollment. Enrollment policies have great potential for huge savings. In many states, enrollment increases have far outpaced population growth in recent years. In North Carolina, for instance, the increase in full-time enrollment in the state university system doubled the 20 percent rise in population from 1998 to 2009. With graduation rates hovering around 54 percent at public universities nationally, limiting enrollment by raising admission standards could improve university systems while concurrently lowering expenditures.

Something else universities can do is concentrate their focus. When the money flows easily, schools tend to add nonessential programs and yield to mission creep. Public universities support dozens of institutes and special centers that have little to do with education. As a corporate CEO might do at such a time, administrators should look at every program, institute, and center and decide whether it fits in with the university’s core mission – and unload the nonessential.

The universities’ mission to educate also should be given higher priority than research and community service. After all, without education, there is no reason for the universities to exist, while research and community service can be accomplished by other agencies. In fiscal year 2008, for example, the most recent year for which data are available, the 60 leading research universities in the United States – more than half of which are public – spent $5.2 billion in institutional funds on academic research, the Association of American Universities reports on its web site. The federal government provides huge sums for research grants as well. State funding for research is often unnecessary.

And a refocus on education over research means increasing the teaching loads of faculty. At major universities, faculty generally average two courses per semester or less—a part time job for six figure salaries. Tremendous savings would result  if their loads were increased by merely one course per year.

But even if administrators successfully refocus their institutions on their primary mission—education—they may still have to cut deeper and go after academics.

One strategy for prioritizing academics is to retain programs that provide students with tangible job skills. Teaching students specific scientific, technical and financial skills needed by the economy is perhaps the strongest justification for subsidizing higher education in the first place. In frugal times, practical concerns deserve given greater weight.

To put this in concrete terms, society needs engineers, nurses and accountants. The benefits society reaps from such graduates warrants subsidizing their education. It cannot be equally said that a society “needs” sociologists, gender experts, or university-trained potters and pianists. There may be other justifications for such programs, but they must be considered lower priorities—and less worth public subsidies—than courses that teach the skills needed in a prosperous, advanced society.

This does not suggest turning universities into strictly vocational institutions. Intelligent cuts, involving proper judgment, would preclude eliminating core courses in the humanities, math or science in favor of peripheral vocational majors such as golf course management and motorsports engineering.

The budget-cutting process should involve another step as well. Instead of just making easy decisions based on enrollment (and possibly eliminating courses that complement the school’s scholarly purpose), or pragmatic decisions based on economic goals, it is time for some serious thinking about how best to instill in students those “habits of mind,” as Cardinal John Henry Newman described them, that will benefit both the students as individuals and society at large.

A common criticism of large universities today is that they offer so much choice that young people can avoid getting an actual education. With thousands of courses to choose from, a student can, by design or accident, focus on minutiae rather than the major ideas that influence society and history. Yet courses that concentrate on the most important bodies of knowledge and eschewing narrower topics will produce better-educated students. Therefore, courses and programs teaching the most important ideas over should be preserved, and those teaching the less important should be terminated.

For example, the following upper-level course from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s History Department addresses major historical and philosophical themes:

454 The Reformation (RELI 454) (3). Examines a movement of religious reform that shattered Latin Christendom and contributed many of the conditions of early modern Europe. Emphases: religious, political, social.

In contrast, the following UNC course is specific to a degree unnecessary in undergraduate education:

436 Medieval Theology, Gender, and the Body (RELI 4360) (3). This course will explore notions of male and female sanctity from Late Antiquity to the High Middle Ages. Topics will include martyrdom, the cult of relics, and bodily resurrection.

Both of these courses fulfill similar degree requirements. But sticking to subjects of major importance, as illustrated by the first course, and eschewing narrower topics, such as those explored in the second course, will likely produce better-educated students.

Another possible criterion for cutting is whether or not a course or program is based on a political agenda, is overtly one-sided, or serves a narrow constituency. Usually, programs such as women’s and gender studies typically were created in response to political pressure. As a result, they often emphasize advocacy rather than free inquiry. Perhaps there can be no greater gain for the academy than eliminating programs that conflict with the mandate to pursue knowledge impartially.

Administrators also should take a hard look at the proliferation of so-called “interdisciplinary” programs, which frequently are higher education’s way of responding to temporary trends. North Carolina State University, as an example, even offers “self-designed” BA and BS degrees in interdisciplinary studies. Such programs typically mix a variety of topics—a little science, a little economics, a little culture, and a huge helping of political correctness—in such a way that they provide neither the skills for future employment nor the rigorous habits of mind that come from intense study of a single discipline.

Prioritizing budget cuts according to the above guidelines would result in universities that are more efficient, have higher standards, are more focused on their primary goal, and are more immune to political trendiness and bias.

It’s time for boldness. Some schools may want to drop entire departments so they can protect special areas of strength.

Sadly, many university systems undoubtedly will take a decidedly bureaucratic approach to budget-cutting: reducing budgets across-the-board to avoid making difficult judgments. Others will yield to internal politics in their decision-making.

If so, it will mean a great loss of opportunity. The need to make deep spending cuts gives university administrators a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reform the system in ways that under ordinary circumstances would be politically unfeasible. They need to go for it—the alternative is to merely become less than before.