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Small college presidents get advice on how to judge programs' value

Pep Talks and Pain Points
January 6, 2012

MARCO ISLAND, Fla. -- Two separate but related themes are dominating this week's meeting of presidents of the mostly small private institutions that make up the Council of Independent Colleges. The first was exemplified by an impassioned opening speech by Nannerl O. Keohane, former president of Duke University and Wellesley College, that heralded the value of the liberal arts and offered the audience ideas about how to defend them to legislators, board members and other would-be skeptics. That represents the cheerleading part of what associations and other groups often do for their members: giving the crowd what it wants. 

The second -- important but not always embraced -- role that higher ed groups often play is more akin to a parent giving a reluctant child his or her medicine.

On Thursday, that approach was best exemplified by a workshop given by two experts on higher education finance designed to give campus presidents a framework for better understanding how their institutions spend money. In the words of the session's subtitle: "Where does the money come from? Where does it go? What does it buy?"

Those questions are likely to raise the hairs on the back of the necks of many faculty and staff members, since the (often reasonable) assumption is that any such discussion is inevitably designed to give campus leaders ideas about how to cut programs, jobs, etc.

Thursday's presenters, Jane Wellman of the transitioning Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, and Richard Staisloff of the RPK Group, did not pretend that the ultimate goal of what Staisloff called "strategic finance" -- analysis of how much specific programs (academic or otherwise) cost and how they align with the institution's mission -- isn't to some extent about figuring out what to cut.

Nor did they leave the assembled presidents with any impression other than that tougher times are ahead for colleges of all sorts, what with continued cutting of public funds for higher education and students, increased competition from for-profit colleges, potentially declining enrollments over all, and growing pressure on institutions not to slow the growth in tuition rates. With their traditional sources of revenue likely to remain constrained in the near future, many colleges will have to reallocate money to expand successful programs or create new ones, Wellman said.

While those were not the most upbeat of messages, Wellman and Staisloff tried to make clear that understanding which of a college's programs produce more (or less) net revenue than comparable programs at other institutions, deliver the most credit hours, and the like is not just a tool for cutting those with less-desirable metrics.

"This is about a critical shift from spending to investing, and knowing what you get for your investment," Staisloff said. "It's about producing information that can inform your decision-making, but it's not a conspiracy [leading to] certain kinds of decisions. What you do about it once you get the data is not predetermined.... You may still decide that you want to subsidize programs that are essential to your mission, but you want to know what we're subsidizing, and to what extent."

Staisloff cited numerous examples of institutions where additional data about programs' performance had altered decision-making. One college cut its academic budget by 15 percent through "course cycling," in which it offered courses somewhat less frequently (one semester a year instead of two, once every two years instead of every year, etc.). Another had 100 majors, but had half its students in the top 15.

At yet another, the English program -- at most colleges a relatively low-cost discipline -- cost significantly more per student than the national average. When Staisloff asked why, he was told that at some point in the past, the English department had won a promise that no class (even a survey course) would have more than 12 students. Soon after, the ceiling was raised to 18, and efficiency increased -- without a meaningful effect on quality, Staisloff said.

Sometimes the data pointed in the other direction, he said. One college's education program scored off the charts as cost-effective against national norms, but upon further digging, it turned out that the program's faculty were "too diluted," so the institution added a full-time faculty member, Staisloff said.

When it came time for the audience to react to the presenters, several expressed trepidation about faculty pushback and perceptions that administrative operations might be harder to subject to the same kind of analysis, a perspective that Wellman and Staisloff challenged.

One College's Experience

But Nancy H. Blattner, president of Caldwell College, in New Jersey, recounted her institution's experience with an "academic prioritization" process much like the one Staisloff suggested. With Blattner seeking funds to expand successful or promising programs but concerned that the college was running out of room to raise tuition, she concluded, she said, that "the best way we could find to produce resources was to reallocate from within."

So after a retreat at which she won the backing of board members -- after telling them that "this is the kind of process by which presidents are fired, or get votes of no confidence" -- she put the process in the hands of a team of five faculty members elected by their peers, to "disavow the fact that I had a secret list hidden in some body part somewhere."

The process resulted in some programs being cut, but the hundreds of thousands of dollars reallocated as a result wound up supporting "some programs that we knew were losing money, but we made informed decisions to do that," Blattner said.

Several of the programs that gained new investments were in the sorts of practical disciplines that humanists might suspect would fare best in such a reallocation, such as nursing, applied behavioral analysis, and counseling psychology. But Caldwell also increased its spending on one of its costliest academic programs, music, because its performers are "tremendous ambassadors" in the community and draw local residents to the campus. And a new gallery and other investments in the art program are pending, too, she said -- once "I find the resources for that."

 

 

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