Universities are in for a very tough decade ahead—they are increasingly perceived as a risky and overpriced value proposition, and the pool of potential new students is going to decline as a consequence of falling fertility. To make themselves more attractive, colleges need to become leaner, cheaper, and more relevant. There are several relatively simple things that could be done that would significantly lower costs and improve collegiate attractiveness and future viability. In many cases, however, schools will go to their deaths not biting the bullet and making the big changes necessary, often because administrators won’t push necessary reforms, and/or governing boards fail to take the initiative to make that happen. Below I list four ways costs could be lowered materially, sometimes taking a few years before fully realizing savings.
Cut Administrative Staffs and Costs By At Least 20%
The business of universities is to teach and do research. That requires professors and some support personnel. It does not require umpteen associate provosts for international affairs, diversity, sustainability, student support, and so forth. A typical four year school today has more professional staff not teaching than those who do. Often at least one out of five of them are doing things that have nothing to do with creating or disseminating knowledge, and also are not self-financing positions (as many in, say university affiliated clinical facilities often are). Ridding the campus of these individuals generally would not impact the quality or quantity of teaching or research. We don’t need sustainability gurus to tell us how to save the planet, or armies of inclusion specialists to tell us to respect fellow students and faculty and tolerate human differences. We don’t need umpteen PR individuals to brag about the school’s accomplishments—a few will do. College deans who used to have one or two assistants now usually have five or ten—they can go at least halfway back to the past, to maybe four assistants. The last time I checked, the University of Michigan had over 90 diversity administrators—couldn’t it get by with 10—or, arguably, zero?
Make Faculty Teach More and End Expensive Graduate Programs With Few Students
While the precise dimensions are unknown, teaching loads for American faculty have fallen significantly over time, ostensibly to promote research. While in some cases this may be justified, many faculty publish rather modestly in obscure journals that few read, and does little to enhance our cultural capital. Suppose a school needs 3,000 courses taught each semester, 2,000 by 1,000 faculty members with an average two course teaching load, and 1,000 by 500 adjacent (mostly part-time) faculty also averaging two classes taught each. If average full-time faculty teaching loads rose to three courses, the school could get by with 333 fewer faculty (saving tens of millions of dollars annually), or it could eliminate all adjacent faculty teaching, or a combination of both—saving lots of money. To make that happen, graduate programs with modest enrollments and reputations whose graduates seldom get good jobs would probably be eliminated—a plus for society.
Abandon Big-Time Athletic Aspirations
Many colleges and universities subsidize intercollegiate athletic competitions to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually. Commercially, it is unlikely the nation can support at a near break-even level more than a few dozen schools. Look at how college sports were done around 1950 and replicate it—fewer coaches, players and games, much lower salaries, etc. Require universities receiving huge incomes from television and related sources to “tax” their athletic operations heavily to help fund general academic operations. The Iron Law of Sports rules—every time someone wins a game, someone else loses.
Reduce Tuition Discounting
If sticker tuition prices are reduced materially (by over 10 %) because of the above actions, the amount of discounting fees from the listed price can fall a bit as well. Colleges can reduce their so-called scholarship aid without increasing student financial burdens, helping fund reductions in published fees.
University presidents like to be popular on campus, as that usually increases their income and job security. But the wishes of the campus community usually are inconsistent with the new market realities of higher education. Presidents, supported by trustees who previously were often toothless rubber stamps, should enact reforms such as those outlined above to promote institutional survival.