The old saying that the privileged class “does not know how the other half lives” seems true in higher education.
At my private liberal arts institution, a faculty committee is concerned that a rule requiring three years of service between a paid untenured leave and paid sabbatical leave is unfair to some faculty members. The faculty is resisting another committee’s proposal to meet a government mandate by adding instructional activities to courses that we consider equivalent to four-hour courses elsewhere yet meet for only three hours per week here. Adding instruction undercuts our recent reduction to a five-course teaching load, and will seem even more like a “take-back” when faculty members calculate how little they will benefit from the small percentage raise approved for 2011-2012, which will be sliced into pieces for merit, equity, and market adjustments to keep each rank near the middle of its comparison group.
These concerns are similar to those at other selective private liberal arts colleges and universities, but readers who work at other types of institutions must be thinking, “Give me a break!” when they read about our woes. For us, these are not trivial issues, as they deal with equity and fair compensation. But they are trivial compared to the larger financial issues confronting this nation’s higher education system -- they are little chunks of ice compared to the iceberg of problems crushing less financially secure private institutions and almost all public institutions.
In his eye-opening 2008 book,The Last Professors:The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, Frank Donoghue argues that American higher education is being divided into two sectors based on financial stability and prestige. My concern is that the “haves” are aware of neither the problems affecting the “have-nots” nor the fact that strains underlying those problems are destroying the foundations of nonprofit higher education as a whole. It is time for those in wealthy, selective institutions to “wake up and smell the coffee” of a national affordability crisis.
Consider the young people growing up in our own college town, who rarely attend our private college or any private college, more typically attending institutions supported by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Our new governor has just announced his budget proposal, which would represent, according to Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, the “single-largest appropriation cut in the history of higher education.” The 50 percent reduction in appropriations would decrease support of the 14 state-owned institutions and four state-related institutions by $660 million, including reducing support of Penn State’s budget by $182 million from an already low 8 percent to 4 percent. Public college tuitions, already above average for the nation, could increase as much as 20-25 percent. How would this affect our children and those of our neighbors?
Similar funding crises in other states are in the news, but those of us working in the relative comfort of selective private education generally have not realized the extent of the problem. Nor have we recognized that many of the major public institutions now receive so little support from their states that they are appropriately designated public-assisted or state-assisted. Tom Mortenson’s analysis in the February 2011 Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY illustrates not only the dramatic increase in average state fiscal support for higher education from 1961 to 1980 but also the more remarkable decrease of 39.8 percent from 1980 to 2011, with 2011 levels approximating those of 1967. Mortenson describes as ironic the concurrence of the funding decrease with this era’s emphasis on the relationship of higher education with income and well-being.
However, it is this very human-capital benefit that has allowed government to abandon responsibility for supporting higher education as a public good and shift cost to the consumer. Less directly, it has has allowed private institutions to shift their emphasis away from need-based aid guaranteeing affordability. My colleagues do not want our private college to educate only wealthy students, and they definitely want a public alternative for students who cannot afford private higher education.
But they need to know the trends in state funding, that students qualifying for Pell Grants (i.e., lower income students) rarely attend our institution or any of the top-tier private institutions, that need-based aid plays a shrinking role for needy students in both private and public education, and that the average debt for graduates who borrow to attend private and public institutions is high and growing higher.
Although the need to defend the value of high-cost private education has made us accustomed to thinking of public institutions in this state and elsewhere as competitors, I would ask my colleagues to think as citizens interested in the welfare of the population of our state and nation, and the welfare of the nation’s system of higher education. We should do so because, even though higher education benefits the individual graduate, it still is a public good. This public good comprises both the contributions of the graduates to society and the existence of the colleges and universities as cultural institutions that are contributors to new knowledge and repositories of knowledge, both knowledge with obvious practical benefits and knowledge with less obvious benefits such as helping us understand what it means to be human.
We also should think as defenders of higher education as a whole for the sake of equity -- because our own educations have been supported as a public good. Some government or nonprofit entity granted us part of the cost of our higher education not as personal gifts to individuals but because of a belief that it was fair for equally capable people to have equal opportunities, or that it was good for society for people like us to have that education. This help was given through government support of our public or private institutions, scholarships, subsidized work-study, subsidized loans, or, less visibly, through subsidies beyond the advertised cost provided by endowments of nonprofit private institutions. Finally, we should support public higher education, as well as our own private sector, because it is likely that our grandchildren, if not our children, will be unable to afford private higher education.
I would ask my colleagues to recall the educational history of their own families. My family has benefited enormously from the past generosity of the American higher education system and government support. In the late 1930s, my father was able to work and put himself through his low-cost hometown public institution. My mother received a scholarship to a private woman’s college; when her family ran out of money, an administrator there paid her remaining fees out of back wages owed her by the financially strapped institution.
In the 1960s, my husband and I both received generous need-based scholarships to selective private institutions, and mine was supplemented by a National Defense Education Act loan (50 percent of which was forgiven for my first five years of college teaching). Our graduate education was entirely paid by the government (National Science Foundation and Public Health Service) and by our private university’s endowment.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, over half of both our children’s tuition at private institutions was paid as a tuition benefit by my current institution. Both of our children also received advanced degrees at low-tuition public institutions, one with a teaching assistantship that paid even that tuition. Most of my colleagues have similar histories, perhaps with a larger contribution from public education. If private tuitions continue to increase at many times the rate of inflation, public tuitions continue to increase at a rate faster than private tuitions, and loans increasingly replace scholarship aid, will our grandchildren have similar opportunities?
Surprisingly, the College Board website presents the projected average for four years of tuition and fees for students beginning in 2028 at a private institution ($340,800) or an in-state public institution ($95,000) as though families can prepare for these costs. In his 2010 book Crisis on Campus, Mark Taylor argues that a four-year education at the more expensive top-tier private colleges and universities, which currently cost around $50,000 per year, would cost an astounding $661,792 for a student beginning in 2028. Such costs would seriously undermine the argument that the human capital benefits make even an expensive private school education “worth it” in terms of future earnings.
Although the skyrocketing costs of higher education are not primarily due to increases in faculty salaries, I do not think my colleagues realize the extent to which budget problems are being addressed in both the private and public sectors by using fewer full-time professors in continuing positions (ergo, “the last professors” of Donoghue’s book title). Over half of faculty members now are part-time, and part-time positions are the norm in the rapidly growing for-profit sector. Even among full-time professors, more than 40 percent are temporary or off the tenure track. Thus, only about 30 percent of faculty members fit my colleagues’ image of a traditional professor.
Less secure positions are cheaper and more flexible, making them hard for financially challenged institutions to resist. Although the attention of continuing faculty may be limited to their own sector, the job markets of the private, public, and for-profit sectors are connected. An excess of qualified applicants relative to full-time openings, the willingness of qualified professionals to work for lower pay and benefits in temporary positions or to work part-time without benefits, and the focus of our professional organizations on issues like tenure in full-time positions rather than on fair compensation and conditions for part-time and temporary faculty all depress the compensation structure for our profession as a whole.
My colleagues might expect that public institutions’ flat salaries for the past two years (plus unpaid furloughs and loss of paid sabbaticals, travel funds, and basic support) will give institutions such as ours an advantage in hiring. But any advantage likely would be temporary. Institutions such as ours have other urgent needs, as well as the need to slow tuition increases. Because compensation at private institutions is based on success in hiring and on comparisons with the overall AAUP rank averages, as well as comparisons with like institutions, faculty compensation at all but the wealthiest private institutions eventually will be negatively affected by salary difficulties in the public sector. We will all suffer if public institutions lack sufficient funds.
What steps would I urge for my colleagues and faculty members at other private institutions? We are experts at gathering information and sharing information on complex issues. We know how to make a case. We need to make sure that the situation of higher education as a whole is understood.
We need to ask our administrations to lobby for public higher education, and we need to support the lobbying efforts of the public sector. Writing our representatives matters; state legislators count constituents who are pro and con, and they also need information to bolster positions on the public good and affordability. Treating higher education as a private good can appear to be an easy answer for voters who are aware of large state deficits unless they have heard the argument for the public good. Although getting information to voters in general is somewhat unpredictable, we have direct access to our students, most of whom are eligible to vote in a state. In general, we need to stand with public higher education rather than competing with it, and we need to help make the case that higher education is a public good.
Eugenia P. Gerdes is professor of psychology and dean emerita of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University.
At the beginning of the economic downturn, higher education saw a wave of furloughs as administrators scrambled to compensate for budget cuts on short notice. Sometimes they were a sensible response to serious budget problems — as in the California State University System, where budget problems are indeed dire and faculty, academic professionals, and staff unions agreed to furloughs. In many other cases, furloughs were the result of misplaced priorities as administrators pleaded poverty while directing millions of dollars to facilities and other endeavors that are not directly related to education. As we argued then, furloughs hurt students and the education that is delivered, and they hurt working people — they should be a last resort, not a first resort.
However, now that the 2009-10 academic year financial reports of public universities have started to come in, we are learning that many universities that implemented required furloughs in the 2009-10 academic year had their revenues so exceed expenses that they could be boasting, if officially businesses, about record profits, For example, at the University of Northern Iowa, total revenues increased from $269,722,087 in 2009 to $292,646,325 in 2010, despite a decline in the state appropriation, while total expenses declined due to furloughs. As a result, university revenues exceeded expenses by $25.9 million — much more than the $14 million excess in the year previous. At the University of New Mexico, where state appropriations dropped by 10 percent or $30 million in 2010, the decline was more than overcome by increase in tuition and other revenue; the year's revenue exceeded expenses by $100 million.
In other words, these universities unnecessarily reduced the pay of hard-working professionals, and for no other purpose than to say that they did so. The motto of so many university administrators was "leave no crisis behind," as these administrators used the national economic situation as justification for unnecessary reductions in the compensation of the people who educate our students.
Furloughs continue, and now are joined by a new wave of budget cutting in the form of program discontinuances. Administrators at dozens of institutions have announced plans to eliminate, reduce, or suspend programs, including SUNY Albany (French, Italian, Russian, classics, theater), the University of Maine (public administration, German, Latin, theatre, women’s studies), Louisiana State University (Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Japanese, German, Latin), the University of Nevada at Reno (German studies, Italian), Winona State University (French, German), Albion College (computer science, physical education, dance), Wells College (French, religion, music), University of Southern Mississippi (health, art, engineering technology, geology, German, Latin, religion, marine science), and more.
These plans are based on myths:
Myth #1: Institutions are in such dire straits that they must cut.
Some institutions are actually in dire straits, and for them a declaration of financial exigency and program cuts may be unavoidable and appropriate. But the vast majority of public universities are experiencing increases in revenues and reserves.
State appropriations have indeed fallen significantly. But since state appropriations are only a portion of institutional revenue, a 10 percent cut in state appropriations does NOT equal a 10 percent cut in the institution’s budget. Most institutions have multiple sources of revenue -- and some are actually enjoying increased revenue as the recession drives up enrollments. In many states, tuition revenue from enrollment increases has more than made up for any reduction in state appropriations. Contrary to the claims of some administrators, the lack of federal stimulus dollars is not causing our public universities to fall off a cliff. Therefore, 2009-10 has seen record revenues for many public universities. In addition, many institutions have substantial amounts of money set aside in unrestricted accounts, for designated purposes, or in rainy day funds.
In the University of Maine system, for instance, state budget cuts prompted a decision to eliminate the Department of Public Administration, suspend majors in German, Latin, theatre, and women’s studies, and reduce or "downsize" a handful of other programs — even though the university system’s unrestricted net assets (also called “reserves”) grew to $128 million in 2010, up from about $50 million in 2005. In addition, the Maine system had record revenues in 2010, and revenues exceeded expenses by $55 million, which was the highest level of profit recorded in many years.
Administrators tend to speak as though restricted or designated funds are unavailable to them when it comes to balancing the budget — but this is often simply not true. The restrictions and designations represent decisions and priorities, many of which are grievously misplaced. What else can you call it when presidents, coaches, and top administrators earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more but institutions "can’t afford" to give raises to the adjunct faculty who teach the bulk of undergraduate courses while earning low per-course wages? When institutions sink millions into new buildings while class sizes rise?
As for rainy day funds — a prudent idea, but if you are eliminating programs and laying off staff, the rainy day has arrived.
Myth #2: Cutting the least lucrative programs, or those with the lowest enrollments, is a no-brainer.
The United States has been justly renowned for its higher education system precisely because of the comprehensive education — not simply narrow job training — offered here. A wide offering of courses is essential to the critical thinking skills that our students need to succeed in our ever-expanding global economy and to carry out their responsibilities as informed citizens in a democracy. Unfortunately, the commitment to educating an informed citizenry is being replaced in many institutions with a commitment to turning a profit. We believe that education is a public good — and one on which we as a society should expect to spend money.
Myth #3: Deciding which programs to offer is the administration’s responsibility.
Curricular decisions are primarily the responsibility of the faculty, who have the expertise necessary to plan and deliver educational offerings. Absent true financial exigency, program discontinuances should be determined by educational factors, considered by the faculty as a whole or an appropriate committee thereof. Again, there may well be instances in which a college or university truly cannot afford to operate its programs in an ideal fashion. In that case, a declaration of financial exigency and program cuts may be unavoidable. But these situations are the exceptions, not the rule.
Myth #4: There is really nothing faculty can do about this.
Faculty have a responsibility to ensure the educational integrity of their institutions.
How? Insist on being part of the conversation. Spend the time to learn how to read budgets. (Start by looking here.). Whatever faculty groups exist on campus should take the lead, whether that is the senate, an American Association of University Professors chapter or a collective bargaining unit. (See here for how to do so.)
Faculty should now do what faculty are good at: asking questions, being skeptical, requiring evidence to support hypotheses. Faculty should not accept as fact the assertion that programs need to be cut because “everyone else is doing it.” Faculty need to demand full transparency of financial information. At institutions that have not yet published their 2010 financial statements (fiscal years typically end June 30), faculty need to demand that these statements be released to the public. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
Myth #5: My institution is doing OK, so I don’t need to worry.
Actually, if you are fortunate enough to be at an institution that is not currently going through financial turmoil, this is the best time to worry about it. Take a look at your faculty handbook or collective bargaining agreements and strengthen the language now, while the institution is not in crisis — once a crisis hits, it will be much more difficult to spend the time revising handbook language and to get the attention of decision-makers. Sample policies are here.
Howard Bunsis and Gwendolyn Bradley
Howard Bunsis is professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University and chair of the American Association of University Professors Collective Bargaining Congress. Gwendolyn Bradley is a senior program officer at the AAUP.
Like classic mythology, the guest opinion, "Myths on Program Elimination" by Howard Bunsis and Gwendolyn Bradley, in the March 31 edition of Inside Higher Ed, contains just enough facts to fool many readers into believing this tall tale.
Let's start with the truth. And on these points the authors and I agree. Yes, furloughs can diminish the quality of education provided at a university. And yes, furloughs should be used as a last resort, instead of layoffs -- as they were used at the University of Northern Iowa. And I would agree that if, and I stress if, public universities were for-profit companies, our balance sheet could look much different. And yes, UNI, like many public universities, continues to face very difficult financial times.
The financial information the authors provided is inaccurate. And like those figures, their arguments aren't just inaccurate, they're not based in reality.
Bunsis and Bradley imply that all revenue received by a public university is unrestricted and available for any use. This couldn't be further from the truth. Public universities aren't private for-profit companies. And public university presidents aren't corporate CEOs who may have the latitude to spend funds any way they wish. By law, public institutions of higher education must spend state funds as directed by their state legislature. The authors should understand this, but persist in telling fables.
For instance, they imply that room and board paid by students can be siphoned off to fill gaps made by a severe drop in state appropriations. Those funds can't be touched by the university. Bunsis and Bradley go on to imply that state and federal funds directed for capital projects and grant projects can be used to erase deficits in the university's general-education fund. Again, state and federal funds are restricted, and must be used for the intended purpose. Our hands are tied.
Under a system such as the authors portray, an unscrupulous university president could redirect room and board revenue to fund faculty salaries, or even athletic coaches' salaries. The trust between the president and the students and their families would be forever lost. UNI's financial statements, including our statement of cash flows, are online. We invite interested readers to review them to better understand this issue.
Yes, public universities face some very tough and very real financial challenges. Now is the time we must put aside petty bickering, separate the myths from the facts and work to find solutions.
Tom Schellhardt is vice president for administration and financial services at the University of Northern Iowa.
Of his 16 years as president at Berea College, Larry Shinn has found the last year to be the most contentious, challenging, and potentially transformative. While grappling with budget deficits, Shinn has fended off student critics who say he makes too much money and taken shots from faculty members for a controversial plan that would dismantle existing departments.
To top it all off, Shinn’s former provost is calling on his old boss to resign.
“We went through a very messy process,” Shinn says.
In the past year, many faculty members and students who never paid much attention to the concept of "endowment payout rates" and their rolling averages have had reason to learn about them. In short, the idea is that colleges and universities shouldn't decide each year what share of their endowments to spend, but should have a standing philosophy on the appropriate payout rate, and should average that rate out over several years to avoid spending too much or too little based on a particularly good or bad financial year.