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Obamaschool

Obamaschool
 

The President’s appeal for accessible higher education at the University of Michigan (a higher cost school than Mason), deserves a reasoned response and discussion. The goals are splendid, but without being defensive, there are also problems attached. I hope we can give the issues wide airing.

I was pleased that the President acknowledged that the decline in state funding was a key cause of rising tuitions at public institutions, though he might have lingered on the subject a bit longer.

On the minus-potential side, one hopes that a result of his appeal is not an additional set of federal reporting requirements, which have already gone up and actually, if modestly, driven up our costs in keeping pace. Reporting mandates on certificate programs and job placement results (notoriously hard to keep track of) already press the boundaries of the desirable.

What about costs themselves? How can we keep costs down?

Once we recover from the state cuts, a few targets seem clearly achievable: we ought to be able to keep salary increases to inflationary levels (again, ideally after a recuperation period in which years of little or no gain are addressed, at least in part). Same for utilities and maintenance.

I know faculty would love to see better caps on the salaries of upper administrators, and if more competent people applied for the jobs and some recent precedents were bravely challenged, we might make some progress here — though the results in terms of overall budgets might not be as impressive as some imagine.

Two key cost drivers need more subtle attention. Student demands and needs for additional services, from entertainment to counseling, play a significant role in increased staffing. Maybe this culture might be constrained, but it’s not up to universities alone. Information technology costs are even more problematic: needs grow steadily, and expenses in this area routinely exceed overall inflation — not easy to deal with in terms of real educational needs and student expectations alike. Worth noting also, the current areas of educational focus, notably STEM, are actually more expensive than education in general.

Then there’s research. Perhaps more universities should be discouraged from research. On the other hand, research and teaching combinations, at their best, help students. And the nation presumably needs research even apart from this. Yet research jacks up costs, for federal or other indirects never fully cover the burden of buildings, administration and so on.

On faculty: perhaps more public institutions should simply sit back and let well-endowed privates steal their most visible professors, rather than contributing to salary gains by competing. But it’s hard to avoid some effort at competition, and in many cases, students at the publics would suffer in the process. Or maybe we can reconsider tenure — to have it cover a period of a faculty career but not persist indefinitely, so that the costs of older faculty could be contained. This would be painful but might be worth discussing.

Many outsiders, of course, hope that much of this discussion might be bypassed by dramatic innovation, such as more distance learning or some other method of radically increasing class size per professor. All indications to date, however, suggest that good distance learning, while beneficial in many ways, does not easily cut university budgets. And when budgets are cut — as the abysmal retention rates at the for-profits suggest — learning dramatically suffers.

So let’s talk about the components of cost. They’re not all equally inflexible, but education is labor-intensive, and it’s not easy to imagine dramatic changes that won’t affect the quality of the outcomes. I think we should welcome reasonable accessibility tests and work to meet the challenge — particularly if existing sources of support could at least be stabilized. But the operative word is reasonable, which is where realistic, if not sympathetic, understanding — not wishful rhetoric — is essential.