Bruce's Blog

Dec. 12, 2009

As we face further budget reductions, we have to make the consequences clear – for example, cutting enrollments or ...

When we cut budgets, there are consequences. We all know that: consequences for those we proudly exist to serve: students, communities, the state, … posterity. The problem as I see it is not that we somehow “fail” to make cuts with real consequences. Every cut we have made hurts: hurts students, hurts the state, hurts academic quality. Rather, the problem is really two fold. First, we seek to minimize the pain by not relying upon one single strategy: there are a multitude of smaller consequences rather than one large one. And, a paradox: the consequences we worry most about (academic quality) have little or no political import; those that register most heavily upon the political balance scales in Olympia (cutting back access) dramatically affect the future of the state but also have severe and multiplied impacts for us.

When budgets are cut, the major alternatives available fall into five categories: we increase revenues, we increase efficiency, we reduce quality, we increase time to degree, we reduce size. Any particular budget cut, you can think of, as an effort by all of us to find the best possible combination of these five bad of consequences. I will look at each in more detail.

When it comes to increasing revenues (mostly tuition), there are the obvious negative consequences – pricing people out of the market and the risk of becoming, in the students we serve, more and more like a private university rather than the public university that we proudly are. Last time around, these negative consequences were ameliorated by the fact that, because of significant federal initiatives (Pell Grant increases, Middle Class Tuition Tax Credit) and full funding of the State Need Grant, most families would not end up facing higher net payments even if tuition increases were large. And, our tuitions, before and after the last increases, were still well below national averages. Even with those “favorable” circumstances, though, increased revenues covered only a relatively small fraction of the total cut to state support for Western this biennium.

So, how about efficiency? We have and will continue to strive for increased efficiency. Last time around, we opened a forum for suggestions and received over 100. They were all evaluated and were considered as part of the budget/planning process. And, our final budget did include some returns expected from improved efficiencies. But, let’s not kid ourselves. Or, let those who – in magically thinking that we need only eliminate waste and inefficiency to cover cuts – continue to deal with fantasy instead of reality. The reality? By the widely regarded NCHEMS data, public higher education in Washington stood, before the last round of budget cuts, at the top of the 50 states when considering productivity (degrees per student) together with efficiency (cost per degree). So, to expect that, somehow, we can find significant additional levels of efficiency that nobody elsewhere in the country has been able to find is silly on its surface.

Falling under the “efficiency” consequence is the dream I have been hearing that, if we would just change our “production methods,” we could reduce our operating costs. The latest version – it was prevalent in Olympia this last session – is that we reduce costs by relying more heavily upon emerging technologies. There are too many nuances for me to adequately explore in this blog but let us first remember that we, in the universities, are responsible for developing most all these technologies along with exciting applications in the educational arena. They do help us improve student learning outcomes and reach audiences not well served by traditional American higher education. But, the basic fact remains that, while machines may train people, it requires talented people to educate people. Even via interactive technologies and over the Internet. Most of our budget is in salaries (80%+) and so our basic operating cost structure remains.

There is a way we, and universities around the country, have been forced to shift “production methods” because of fiscal pressures and this leads to the third basic consequence: reduce quality. Nationally, the statistics on reliance on adjunct faculty are scary. At Western, our situation is better than these averages. But, even for us, over the last 15 years, while we have significantly increased the number of faculty, all the increase has been in adjunct and non-tenure track positions. The number of tenure and tenure-track positions has remained relatively flat even as enrollments grew. As essential as our non-tenure colleagues are, they teach heavier loads precisely because they are not required to provide the scholarship, creative activity, and service that keep higher education higher, relevant, and at the leading edge.

There can be other consequences for quality. At Western this year, we reduced the number of class sections by 10% to 15% while maintaining the same number of students and the same total “seat capacity.” Most of this was achieved not by growing existing class sizes but, rather, by shifting teaching responsibilities from very small to larger classes. No matter how thoughtfully this was done, and it was done very thoughtfully, there are consequences for the richness of the curriculum available to our students and the sizes of their classes.

And, as a result, there may be consequences for “time to degree.” Although, in theory, the same seat capacity is there, choices are fewer and this is bound to create difficulties as students seek to build full schedules that, in many cases, also include work commitments.

I have heard very thoughtful colleagues understandably suggest that we do nothing more to increase class sizes. The reasons are very good. But, let’s make sure we are not fooling ourselves into believing that there would be consequences that register in Olympia. Students would have more difficulty filling schedules. Revenues would drop, by the way, even as headcount initially remained the same because average course loads would decline.

Frustrated students, what do they do? They and their parents do not complain to Olympia: it’s their lives, their very personal future and they are not thinking in public policy terms: they simply take their marbles and go elsewhere. As we develop a reputation for being unable to deliver courses necessary to graduate in a timely fashion, fewer students come in the first place. And, we have shifted from a very legitimate concern with academic quality – don’t let class sizes grow – to the most damaging of all possible alternatives: getting smaller.

We could cut enrollments. (Or, see them drop by not delivering sufficient access to courses.) That is problematic. And, ever more so as we are forced to depend more and more on tuition. To illustrate, let’s start with the fact that our base operating budget for 2010-11, after adding back tuition increases and stimulus dollars, has been cut by about $10,000,000. That is about 9% of our operating budget. So, let’s cut our 14,400 students by 9%. OK, but that results in a drop in revenue of another $5,625,000. So, we have to reduce even more students to cover that drop. Solve the infinity series problem and it turns out that, beginning with an initial state cut of $10,000,000, we would have to reduce our student body by over 20% and make a total cut over $20,000,000 to bring things in line.

Now, the economists among us would quickly point out that the situation is actually worse than I illustrated. Since my example is based upon average costs and our costs at the margin are well below average costs, we actually have to cut back enrollments a lot more than 20% before things are back in equilibrium: a lot fewer students and a lot fewer of us.

Reaching equilibrium through the enrollment route means most cuts have to fall where costs are variable, where they depend upon numbers of students (e.g., faculty lines) and not where costs are fixed (e.g., heating and maintaining buildings). So, the university is further destroyed. And, since premier universities cannot be turned off and then back on like an assembly line – it took decades of dedicated strategic effort for Western to evolve from a respectable regional university to a premier destination university – the effects for Washington of the “cut enrollments” approach will be long-term. So, as the colleague was pointing out in the email I received that initiated this response, we do need to “show consequences.” But, we also need to look thoughtfully and in detail at the fairly limited and uniformly disagreeable alternatives available to us. As always, we will seek some balanced combination of the various disagreeable approaches, motivated, I believe, not by any desire to send a message per se but, rather, to remain the best possible stewards of a centuries-long calling that, today and in the future, is ever more relevant.




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