Our venerable institutions of higher learning are not immune to the fallout from the current economic crisis. If true to history, a decline in economic fortunes will first impact the most vulnerable student populations. Reductions in instructional budgets will, according to Wellman (2008), cause the most harm to institutions whose student populations meet common demographic criteria: low-income, first generation to enter college, and in need of academic remediation. When compounded by stock market declines, reduced credit access and reduced corporate giving, student outcomes may not surprisingly yield increased attrition and decreased graduation rates (Dervarics, 2008; Masterson, 2008a, b). For those of us in higher education, however, such student outcomes are deemed unacceptable.
In part it is the uniqueness of the business model of higher education that defies comparison to most other venues. Unlike typical retail establishments, for example, an increase in volume (class size) is associated with decreased performance outcomes of students rather than just greater productivity of faculty. But in contrast to a “slash and burn” mentality reminiscent of Wall Street, creativity comingled with rational compromise has prompted colleges and universities to realign their actions to their missions, reestablish priorities, and focus sharply on short-term and long-term sustainability.
Nevertheless, institutions of higher learning nationwide are in the process of formulating ways of coping. Local citizens and students have organized to affect the decision-making processes. For example, in Salt Lake City, Utah, citizens have organized to form Citizens for Educational Excellence to help strengthen both elementary and higher education in the face of impending budget cuts. This volunteer committee organized to evaluate issues and voice concerns to elected officials about issues as specific as the impact of class size increases and teacher reductions on the future Utah workforce (Walker & Anderson, 2009).
The higher education institutions, however, are acutely aware of the need to meet the requirements of external regulatory accrediting bodies. These requirements run contrary to expectations of across-the-board cuts promoted by the legislators, according to Maffly (2009). The University of Louisiana at Lafayette was met with a similar request for across-the-board cuts, and its president, Joseph Savoie, anticipated eliminating entire programs rather than provide a mediocre university experience for students (Sills, 2009). In another instance, the chancellor of Southern University planned to assess the viability of “low-completer” programs, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate (Blum, 2009).
At Rhode Island’s three colleges, proposals include increasing average class sizes from 28 to 35 students, increasing faculty teaching load (without additional compensation), and implementing hiring freezes (Jordan, 2008). According to Roesler (2009), creative ways to address the current budget crisis at Washington State University consist of focusing on training programs that are in high demand, and broadening training programs such as internships and work-study. Additionally, lawmakers are proposing the creation of programs that permit high school students to enroll in college courses.
Student activism is playing a unique role in efforts to deal with the financial crises. Weekly meetings among Nevada’s college student leaders help support the efforts of their chancellor and inform the University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) student body about the potentially devastating effects of cuts. Because these may include unaffordable increases in tuition to compensate for deficits in government funding, program cuts may leave students with no choice but to transfer to out-of-state colleges to complete their education. According to Lucero and Cronis (2008), the surplus of economic activity generated by investment in UNLV is an outcome the State of Nevada can little afford to lose. And the impact of tuition increases are not limited to Nevada; academic institutions nationwide have, over time, become more dependent upon tuition to finance their needs (Wellman, J., Desrochers, D., Lenihan, C., Kirshstein, R., Hurlburt, S., & Honegger, S., 2009).
At the State University of New York (SUNY), tuition increases are likewise a given. This 64-campus system has seen a drop in endowments that have traditionally been used for scholarships. Compounded with the statewide budget cuts, class sizes will likely increase, hiring freezes will remain in place, and tuition costs will rise, despite increases in applications for admission at institutions such as Binghamton (Parry, 2008). Another sign of the times: SUNY’s student assembly had approved a tuition increase in order to keep its education programs viable; a vote that would not likely have been endorsed by previous generations of college students.
It is anticipated that academic technologies will play a significant role in the financing and sustainability of higher education. Yet efforts to initiate or expand online learning may be thwarted by current economic conditions for the traditional brick-and-mortar colleges. Research has indicated that due to the necessity of limiting class sizes (to be usually smaller than their onsite counterparts), online learning is unlikely to be as cost-effective as larger onsite course sections (Smith & Mitry, 2008). This is contrary to the proposals of the state of Washington, whose lawmakers are promoting an increase in the use of online learning modalities to help control student expenses as well as to address the educational demands of rural students (Roesler, 2009).
Fischman and Young (2008) promote expansion of academic technologies to incorporate a variety of newer learning modalities, such as Second Life, the use of a variety of social media, and Web-based computing to remain cutting-edge and maintain a competitive advantage. Unlike limitations to online learning programs, these technologies have applications for use for onsite instruction as well.
The silver lining to the Cloud of Recession was expressed by Pike, Smart, Kuh and Hayek (2006) in their examination of the relationship between money and student perceptions. Their research revealed that there was no statistically significant relationship between the amount of money spent and how well students feel appreciated, understood and valued. Apparently it is the perception of the culture of the educational institution, when focusing its financial resources on how to best educate students and meet their needs, that will be rewarded with greater student engagement and satisfaction and extrapolated as associated with higher graduation rates and better student outcomes. Perhaps this is how “doing more with less” becomes an attainable goal; consistent with the budgets, mission statements and regulatory agency demands placed on our colleges and universities today.
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Newspaper Articles (All retrieved Feb. 21, 2009 from ProQuest Newspapers database.)
Blum, J. (2009, Feb. 3). SU Chancellor: Cuts Would Spark Layoffs. Baton Rouge
CSUN to Cut Spending Again. Budget: Added Reduction of $2.2 Million Will Lead to Fewer
Courses, Hiring Freeze. (2009, Oct. 28). Los Angeles California Daily News, p. A4.
Jordan, J. (2008, Sept. 22). R.I.’s Public Colleges Struggling to Function with Less. The Providence
Journal, p. C1.
Lucero, J. & Cronis, A. (2008, Nov. 23). Community Can’t Afford More Higher Education
Cuts. Las Vegas Review-Journal. p. D4.
Maffly, B. (2009, Jan. 21). College Chiefs Say Economy-Inspired Cuts Are Complicated. The
Salt Lake City Tribune.
Maffly, B. (2008, Dec. 17). College Faculty, Staff Can Count on Layoffs. The Salt Lake City
Parry, M. (2008, Nov. 11). Call for Cuts, Tuition Hikes at SUNY. Albany Times Union,
Roesler, R. (2009, Feb. 18). Schools Make Their Case; Higher Ed Cuts Could Be
Devastating, Officials Say. Spokesman-Review. p. A1.
Sills, M. (2009, Feb. 7). Savoie Outlines Strategy: ULL Prepares for Budget-Cut
Possibilities. Baton Rouge Advocate, p. 1.
Soule, A. (2008, Aug. 11). State Financing of Schools at Odds with Rising Enrollment, Costs.
Fairfield County Business Journal, p. 16.
Unpaid Days Off. (2009, Feb. 8). The Salt Lake City Tribune.
Walker, O. & Anderson, S. (2009, Feb. 9). Public and Higher Education Need Funding to
Improve. The Salt Lake City Tribune.
American Education Research Association
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State Higher Education Executive Officers
The Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability