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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


When Students Are Footing the Bill

What choices should we make when we know students are paying the bills?

April 1, 2018

What does it mean when 50% of all educational dollars come from student tuition?

According to a study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO), 46.4 percent of all educational revenues come from net tuition revenue. In 28 states, net tuition revenue is a greater source of educational revenues than state contributions. 

I reject the “student as customer” framework for education because I do not think it is a useful way to look at the roles of institutions and students – What is the student “customer” paying for, specifically? - but in pure dollar terms, in a majority of states, student tuition is paying a majority of the bills.

I already believe that higher education institutions should be oriented around the core mission of providing students the means and opportunity to maximize the benefits they’ll receive during their time at the institutions.

But…foregrounding the fact that they are directly paying half the freight is perhaps a useful way of considering the choices which confront faculty and administration.

Barring radical change – which I’m actually more hopeful for today than I was a year ago, but is subject for another post – I believe we are at or near peak revenue for public higher education institutions. The SHEEO report finds that “total education revenues are 5.8% above 2008, and are currently the highest seen in the SHEF (State of Higher Education Finance) dataset, which goes back to 1980.” Increases in tuition have made up for decreases in state support.

Realistically, tuition cannot be pushed significantly higher. Over 40% of public institutions failed to meet enrollment goals in the most recent year. After the year 2025, the total number of high school graduates will begin to decline, after decades of increases, with different regions experiencing disproportionate effects.  In a model where students are funding a significant portion of the educational operations, revenue counted on today may simply not be available tomorrow.

Considering whether or not our choices are sensible stewardship of student tuition dollars is not only the right thing to do to fulfill the mission of the institution, it will be necessary for institutions to survive. When public institutions were funded by public dollars, it was relatively easy to argue that the public subsidy is well-spent in allowing faculty to do the full range of their work, including research.

But how do we view things like course releases or sabbatical leaves when considering that the faculty absence from the classroom is subsidized by so much student money?

If students could be fully informed on the work of the faculty on a release or sabbatical, would they agree this is a wise use of the funds?

In the abstract, it’s a relatively easy case to make. Allowing faculty a chance to recharge their spirits when it comes to teaching, or supercharge their research by being given extra time has obvious benefits to students, as faculty bring back what they’ve reaped to be sown in the classroom.

But I’m also certain there are specific cases where students would be less than sanguine about their tuition dollars supporting faculty activities not directly tied to teaching. Consider the expense of sending faculty to a disciplinary conference in order to conduct face-to-face interviews which could instead be done over Skype. If we are conscious of spending student money, what is the justification for that sort of expenditure?

And how happy would students be to know that a course release for tenured faculty may result in additional low-paid contingent labor to cover the tenured faculty member’s absence? What does it mean for students that the person who is covering that need may not be a part of the institution in a semester’s time, unavailable as a mentor, or even to write a future recommendation?

The notion of being able to “do more with less” has been belied by the on-the-ground operations of higher education institutions. Doing less with less has been and will continue to be the norm. Unfortunately, much of the less has fallen on instructional budgets.

One consequence of trying to do more with less has been to push faculty to the fringes of the decision making processes surrounding budgets and appropriations. I’m wondering how many readers could even say what percentage of their institution’s educational revenue goes towards instruction.

In this realm, the lecturers at the University of Michigan may offer a way forward. As part of their labor negotiations, they have been scrutinizing the publicly available information about the institution’s operating budget, “finding what they say is a $377 million surplus it’s enjoying from their comparatively low-paid labor.”

According to the SHEEO report, in the state of Michigan, student tuition makes up almost 70% of educational revenue, the 6th highest percentage in the nation.

As University of Michigan lecturer Andrea Cardinal says, “Students want to know where their money is going. When we break it down for them, they’re shocked.” 

The work being done at Michigan and other institutions shows that when it comes to these issues, the interests of faculty and students are largely aligned. When faculty embrace a mission to make sound use of student tuition money for the benefit of students, the resulting choices will almost certainly funnel more funding to instruction.

But this shift isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to require some questioning of legacy practices for tenured faculty. Some of those privileges may go by the wayside. If the privileges are borne of a time when public subsidies underwrote them, they may not be tenable in a world were students are so directly footing the bill.

However, the benefits of a united voice of faculty and students on protecting the students’ real-dollar investment in their own educations will be a good thing in the long run.

“This is going to raise questions about the legitimacy of our whole model,” says Ian Robinson, president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization at U of M. “And I’ll be glad to see that.”

Me too.


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