Why do administrators want to cut some college costs and not others?

5 03 2012

Through some remarkable administrative foresight by our (sadly) ex-interim Provost, my department is filling two tenure-track positions this year. No, this is not the academic equivalent of turning water into wine or lead into gold. Nevertheless, it did take a small miracle for two new colleagues to come out of it.

This situation arose from two retirements. One of these retirements is of a senior associate professor. The other is a lecturer. Add those two salaries and benefits packages up, cut them in half and you get two tenure-track assistant professors. While this may seem like a simple equation, it’s not. Usually the salary savings from a retirement go into a giant administrative black hole, diverted to some other purpose besides faculty pay, never to be seen by the department in question again. Our ex-interim Provost (who, by the way, was not demoted but moved on to much greener pastures) actually thought departments should be able to reallocate their own cost savings within their own budgets.

Unfortunately, this attitude is extremely uncommon in public higher education. Consider this statement, which ought to be screamingly obvious to all, but alas isn’t:

Some of the rising cost has to do with other services schools have been adding over the last few decades, like mental health counselors and emergency alert systems. And certainly there are other inefficiencies that have crept into the system as higher education has become more things to more people.

But at least at public colleges and universities — which enroll three out of every four American college students — the main cause of tuition growth has been huge state funding cuts.

In other words, tuition increases backfill revenue that used to come from the state.

But really the situation is worse than that. At the same time schools like UC-Berkeley have been taking the phones out of professors offices, they’ve been launching expensive new initiatives like online arms and campuses in China. Therefore, they have to do more than backfill those cuts. They have to pay for a spending spree designed to make such campuses less dependent upon state funds in the first place. That’s why the adjunctification of the professoriate has done little or nothing for the situation faced by the lucky ones among us who remain on the tenure track. Those labor savings are almost always spoken for even before they’ve been generated.

Yet administrators and reformers alike have all gotten behind the idea of cutting textbook costs. This is from USA Today about two weeks ago:

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to keep higher education affordable, and doing it in a way that does not impact income to the university,” says David Ernst, who is spearheading a University of Minnesota project that encourages faculty to adopt cheaper books.

[Emphasis added]

Silly me, I thought the goal of higher ed reform was to lower the cost of higher education. Period. End of story. It certainly should be. Instead, technology and tuition increases are being used to revive a revenue stream that administrators have come to depend upon for their various pet projects.

Our glorious all-online higher ed future is central to a lot of those pet projects. As a result, what some people think is the future is starving what everyone knows is the present. Someone who I’m almost certain is my friend Kate, wrote the other day here that:

I just think we’re beyond the point that we can say “X is always a fish, and Y is inevitably a chair.”

Just for a moment, let’s stipulate that online courses are not a fish, but the coolest educational invention since the pencil. If the goal of educational technology is to improve education and reduce costs, why hasn’t anyone passed any of those lower costs on to students? In other words, why not charge less for online courses rather than the same or more (like they do at for-profit schools)? After all, the problem with access to higher education in America has a lot more to do with cost than it does with convenience.

It all goes back to that quote from McPaper: they don’t want to impact the income of the university. Disrupting publishers, on the other hand, doesn’t line the university’s coffers, but it does free up more money for students to pay in tuition. I happen to think that students should benefit the same way from technology that my department has benefitted from those two retirements: Let the people most affected by the cost savings decide where to spend the additional revenue themselves.

Until that happens, it doesn’t matter to me whether online classes are inevitably a fish or not. What matters to me is that technology isn’t serving the interests of universal higher education, whether it is a fish, a chair or just the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.



3 responses

6 03 2012
Music for Deckchairs

I confess, it was me, having a momentarily senior moment about who I am. Too much time spent hawking the miraculous cost savings of online learning, no doubt.


10 03 2012
Susan Davis

Reblogged this on Learning and Labor.

14 07 2012
The online education fairy. « More or Less Bunk

[…] higher education were really making the transition to an online future for the sake of students, why don’t online courses cost less than their inefficient, face-to-face […]

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