Cutting the Cost of Higher Education

May 23, 2011

Tuition at state owned colleges will go up at least four percent this fall, and university presidents say further increases are likely.  It can give heartburn to students, parents and university presidents.  Students and parents must pay the additional costs, but, administrators must also contain costs.

In the mid 1990’s, when Kentucky reformed higher education, it sought to reduce costs by limiting duplication.  For example, lawmakers asked regional comprehensive universities to establish programs of distinction, unique to each school.  Now, more than a decade later, critics says state owned colleges and universities could still be more frugal.…among them is Martin Cothran with The Family Foundation of KentuckY.

“In an age of technology, where we can rely now more technological answers to our education problems, the need for building new facilities is lessened but we seem to be hooked on more and more buildings.  That’s another thing we need to take a look at,” said Cothran.

Cothran argues the salaries paid university faculty are not necessarily a problem.  Several schools hope to increase pay during the next fiscal year, but, many workers haven’t received a salary boost in recent years..

Instead, he argues too much state money goes to employees who do not teach.   Those could include maintenance personnel, administrators, researchers, and public radio reporters.

“The problem of non teaching staff, which one report said has resulted in about two thirds of the increase in cost is the increase in non teaching staff,” added Cothran.

The defenders of higher education, including the president of Eastern Kentucky University, say they emphasize cost cutting.

“We have in fact managed our costs, both as an institution and as a system, very well,” said Doug Whitlock.

President Doug Whitlock says they’ve  increased efficiency.  In real dollars, before inflation, he says the per student support through through tuition and state dollars was lower in 2009 compared to 1999.  He say it was partly attributed to an enlarging enrollment which ate up more funding.

However, Whitlock believes some costs cannot be cut.  For example, schools are paying more mileage reimbursement to professors.  Instead of forcing students to drive to a main campus like ones in Morehead, Bowling Green or Richmond, Whitlock says sending professors to branch campuses makes more sense.

“It’s a whole lot more economical cost effective to transport one faculty member to a group of students somewhere else than it is to have all those students driving to the campus,” added Whitlock.

The schools could implement certain staff cuts, eliminate services or postpone the purchase of new technology.  But, the president at Western Kentucky University explains technologies must be kept current because students come to campus with a higher level of computer competence and expectations.   As for personnel cuts, President Gary Ransdell says such reductions could do serious damage to staff morale.

“You’re gonna begin to be less competitive in the marketplace for good faculty which will affect your ability to recruit students.  And the last thing any of our campuses right now need is a decline in enrollment,” said Ransdell.

Patrick Callan directs the California-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.  Callan describes the center as independent, non profit, and non-partisan.

He says cutting expenditures on campus can present a tricky situation.  Callan says it’s important not to enact a short term savings that will prove costly in the long run.

“What you don’t want to do is defer expenditures that might make you more efficient,” explained Callan.

Callan, who’s has evaluated higher education for decades, says it’s not fair to compare tuition rates state to state.  Callan advises Kentucky to focus on the cost of a higher education as a portion of average family income.

However, he adds, no school should rely on annual tuition increases.  Over the last three decades, the higher education expert says tuition has increased faster than health care costs.  Callan thinks there is a breaking point.

“At this rate, I don’t think anyone would argue, if we do in the next 20 years what we did in the last 20 higher education won’t be affordable to many students,” said Callan.

With more students and their parents are re-thinking school loans, Callan says fewer are willing to take on deep debt.  Possible solutions vary. Callan says states, as their economies recover, must invest more in higher education.  Tuition will also go up, but he says it should be kept below inflation.  Finally, colleges need creative solutions to financing their operations.  Callan finishes by saying it’s really the beginning of the struggle, not the end.