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INSIGHTS BLOG > Colleges and Students in a Pickle

Colleges and Students in a Pickle

Written on 14 October 2009

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

What Is the Purpose of Colleges and Universities?

How Do the Cutbacks Affect Education Game Players?


A recent article by the Associated Press, “College Cutbacks Make It Harder to Earn Degrees,” described the problems college students are confronted with in the face of drastic budget cuts at colleges and universities.

It isn't just tuition increases that are driving up the cost of college. Around the country, deep budget cuts are forcing colleges to lay off instructors and eliminate some classes, making it harder for students to get into the courses they need to earn their degree.

The likely result: more time in college…

The 23-campus Cal State system has raised tuition more than 30 percent, increased class sizes, laid off hundreds of teachers and cut thousands of class sections in response to a 20 percent state budget cut…

Money isn't necessarily the only problem, some experts argue. Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said universities focus too much on prestigious but unessential graduate programs at the expense of the undergraduate basics. Others want professors pushed harder to teach essential courses instead of their own boutique interests -- and students to accept more unpopular, early-morning slots.

Colleges and universities (jointly "schools") are facing a real dilemma: Given the large cutbacks in public funding, the schools are unable to pay for the resources they need to educate their students.

One question that comes to mind is how much do schools depend on government funding to pay their bills? If government funds only constitute a small portion of the schools’ revenues, then perhaps they can find some way to trim some spending around the edges until times are better. Unfortunately, this is not he case. Schools, and public schools in particular, depend on funds from Federal, state, and local government for the majority of their revenues (graph data come from National Center for Education Statistics). This means that large cuts in government funding will hit the schools really hard.


So then my next reaction was to consider the obvious responses a business might consider if faced with a similar situation:

• Decrease output (decrease the number of students enrolled)

• Lower quality (increase class sizes)>

• Give priority to certain products or services. In the case of colleges, this might entail giving priority to

• Teaching over research

• Undergraduate students over graduate students

• Upperclassmen over underclassmen

• Underclassmen over new enrollees

• General education classes over upper level (or boutique) courses

In a regular business, the purpose of the business is generally to maximize profits. This means that the first cuts to be made when resources are scarce are to those areas that contribute less to the company’s bottom line. After that, companies generally consider focusing resources on those areas that will generate profits (or cash flow) in the near term, to foster the immediate viability of the company.

Clearly, though, the goal of schools is not to generate profits. So, before we can decide which cost-cutting options might be best for colleges and universities, we really need to know what their mission is. Knowing what the purpose of the schools is will help them decide which programs to favor (their core products and services) and which to cut (their non-core products and services).


What Is the Purpose of Colleges and Universities?

According to The California Master Plan for Higher Education

In addition to the University of California’s ten campuses, higher education in the state includes the 23 campuses of the California State University System, the 108 campuses of the California Community College System, and independent institutions throughout the state.

The California Master Plan for Higher Education, adopted by the state in 1960, helps integrate the missions of these colleges and universities in meeting the educational needs of Californians.

The Master Plan designates UC as the primary state-supported academic research institution. It also gives UC exclusive jurisdiction in public higher education for doctoral degrees (with the exception that CSU can award joint doctorates) and for instruction in law, medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine.

The Master Plan also established an admissions principle of universal access and choice, assigning UC to select its freshmen students from the top one-eighth (12.5%) of the high school graduating class and CSU from the top one-third (33.3%). The California Community Colleges were to admit any student capable of benefiting from instruction. The Master Plan was subsequently modified to provide that all California residents in the top one-eighth or top one-third of their high school graduating classes who apply on time be offered a place somewhere in the UC or CSU system, respectively.

The community college transfer function is an essential component of this commitment to access. Under the Master Plan, UC and CSU set aside upper division places for and give priority in the admissions process to eligible California Community College transfer students. 

So the Plan specifies that priorities include

• Research and graduate education at the UC schools;

• Universal access to all California students in the top one-third of their classes; and

• Upper division access to community college transfer students.

This means the UC schools cannot necessarily redirect resources

• From research into teaching or

• From graduate students to undergraduates.

And none of the California schools can easily increase tuition (otherwise you don't have universal access) or redirect resources

• From underclassmen to upperclassmen (to make sure existing students graduate) or

• From new enrollees to existing students (i.e., cut incoming class size and cater to existing students).

In other words, none of the “easy” solutions are available to the colleges.


How Do the Cutbacks Affect Education Game Players?

Until now, I have assumed that the school administrations have all the control; that is, they are constrained by their Master Plan, but nothing else. Now let me accept that there are other players in the education game that exert at least some influence over the choices the schools can make. The main players in the education game are the schools (the administration), the teachers, and the students. Each set of players has its own agenda, and the outcome of the game will depend on how well the players' different agendas mesh together.

The school administration’s agenda (in no particular order) is to:

• Enroll as many students as possible;

• Graduate as high a portion of its enrollees as possible, in a timely manner;

• Maintain high standards of incoming students (attract the good students);

• Maintain high standards for faculty (attract and keep the good professors);

• Maintain high quality teaching standards; and

• Maintain affordable tuition for its students.

The teachers’ agenda (in no particular order) is to:

• Earn tenure;

• Earn a living;

• Maintain a viable workload;

• Teach classes that are interesting to them;

• Do research that is interesting to them (when research is part of the job);

• Maintain high teaching and research standards;

• Teach motivated students.

The students’ agenda (in no particular order) is to

• Gain admission to the schools of their choice;

• Pay as little tuition (and other costs) as possible;

• Get a good education; and

• Graduate as soon as possible.

It might be said that the two main agendas of the schools are to retain high quality faculty and attract and retain high quality students.

Retaining Teachers: The schools will lose their faculty if they (1) cut their salaries too much; (2) force them to teach too many classes, which will cut into their ability to do research and/or increase their work load; (3) force them to teach classes that are too large, which will increase their workloads and/or decrease the quality of their teaching; or (4) force them to teach too many uninteresting “lower level” courses at the expense of more interesting “upper level” or “boutique” courses.

Retaining Students: The schools will lose their students if they (1) Deny them admission; (2) increase their tuition too much; (3) eliminate too many courses, which will cut into their ability to graduate on time and/or get a good education; or (4) force them to attend classes that are too large, which will decrease the quality of their education.

So what are the options the schools are left with? Not many, which means something somewhere has got to give.