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Stephen Pearlstein’s piece this weekend in the Washington Post, “Four Tough Things Universities Should Do To Rein In Costs,” reminded me of an old line about football announcers. When a play goes bad, or a team has a rough season, announcers will frequently say that the team lacks “discipline.” It conveys a certain gravitas to the speaker, without requiring the speaker to have any actual knowledge. It’s a placeholder. It can be read as “if I had an actual idea, it would go here.”  

Pearlstein argues for “tough” ideas, without bothering to ask why people don’t just implement them. And that’s a missed opportunity. Acknowledging upfront that I’m focused on community colleges while Pearlstein’s piece is focused on research universities, most of the issues are remarkably similar. I’ll fill in some gaps.

Why don’t they just cap administrative costs? At many research universities, the university hospital is lumped under “administrative” costs. As Pearlstein notes, most of what gets called “administrative” isn’t executive; it’s support. IT support,Disability support,accreditation reporting, compliance, that sort of thing. He left out increased security and deferred maintenance, but you get the idea. Yes, it’s frustrating to see many of those costs continue to climb. Which, specifically, do you propose cutting? Name names.

Education is in a difficult spot compared to most private companies, because we don’t capture the gains of our efforts. If someone builds a better mousetrap app, and pours revenue into improving it, she’s likely to reap the marketplace rewards made possible by her efforts. That’s not true in education. If a college does a markedly better job of educating its students, the payoff to the college is indirect and delayed, to the extent it comes at all. In the meantime, mandates pile on top of mandates.  

Why don’t they teach more in the summer? I’m a fan of using the calendar more productively, but here we hit a basic truth that Pearlstein elides entirely. Students vote with their feet. We can schedule all the classes we want; if students don’t enroll, we haven’t achieved anything. It may exist somewhere, but I have literally never seen a community college with summer enrollments as high as its fall enrollments. Never. Not once. And I’ve been at this a while.  

Pearlstein assumes that colleges can drive student demand. To which I say, if only. Students want what they want. If we had the operating funding to not worry about tuition revenue, so we could run year-round, then maybe over time we would see some movement towards a twelve month calendar. But I worked for years at a for-profit with a twelve-month calendar -- I don’t believe Pearlstein ever did -- and I can report that enrollment dipped in the summer there, too. At a certain point, enrollments get low enough that continuing to supply classes becomes untenable.

More teaching and less research? We have an entire sector for that.

Cheaper, better general education? We have an entire sector for that, too. Research universities are called “research universities” for a reason. If you want a place that values teaching, community colleges are everywhere. For that matter, so are the former teachers’ colleges that form the backbone of most four-year public systems. If you don’t like the economics of the research university sector -- and there are good reasons not to -- you have alternatives.

And this is where Pearlstein’s piece really falls apart.  The other sectors -- the ones with a focus on teaching, with a focus on general education, with light administrative structures and lots of summer classes -- face cost spirals, too.  Which suggests that it isn’t about “toughness” at all.

It’s about several other things, all of which make the “toughness” he suggests largely irrelevant.

It’s about public disinvestment, or cost-shifting from states to students. (There’s an argument to be made that the cost-shifting is actually from states to the Feds, through Title IV, but that’s another post.) It’s about the labor-intensity of what we do, making productivity increases harder. (Competency-based education offers promise for getting a handle on that, but the transition is not just a matter of “toughness.”) It’s about having to keep up with technology in teaching students. In other words, businesses adopt technology to save or make money; we adopt technology so students will be familiar with it, even though it doesn’t improve our productivity at all. (Patient simulators are expensive and result in better-prepared nurses, but they don’t save us any money.) It’s about the cost of health insurance. It’s about a host of unfunded mandates, whether in the name of social justice or in the name of making us pay for the sins of the for-profits.  

More subtly, though, it’s about colleges having to compete for students. At the R1 level, students like the prestige of a name based on research and sports. We can argue the wisdom of that preference, but we can’t deny that it exists. At the community and state college level, cost-shifting to students means that enrollment drives budgets to a greater extent than it used to. Combine that with declining numbers of 18-year-olds, and the picture isn’t pretty. A college that tries to ignore expressed student preferences and ram cultural change down their throats will see its enrollments, and therefore revenues, crater. If we want colleges to be “tougher,” we have to enable them to be. That means restoring operating budgets in which tuition plays a far smaller role. Make them tuition-driven, and, well, you get what you pay for.

I don’t take this as fatalistic; as regular readers know, I’m a fan of all sorts of innovation, and I’m always looking for tactics that will actually help. (Right now I’m looking closely at multi-factor placement, to allow more students to skip developmental classes.) CBE offers promise. Prior Learning Assessment does, too, and would even more if financial aid covered it. I even have some thoughts on health care, if we’re really serious about the elephant in the room.  

But to reduce the issues to a lack of “toughness” simply misses the point.  It’s disappointing when a football announcer does it, and potentially damaging when an editorialist with an audience of policymakers does it.  A quick look at the rest of higher education shows the failures of the analysis.  If Pearlstein wants to insist on the “toughness” canard, though, I’ll suggest something tough that might help.  Try doing some actual research.  It’s tough, but worth it.

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