Innovation and Imagination Needed in Approach to Higher Education

The headlines in higher education’s public colleges are all the same: large budget gaps are ubiquitous. Arizona, California, and Florida face huge cuts in higher education. “The current recession and a convergence of other pressures on states and the American economy have eroded the ability of states to rebuild their financial support for higher education,” Paul Lingenfelter, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, wrote in an essay on state finances.

Will this economic crunch necessitate belt tightening? The answer is, of course. But more significantly, retrenchment should be the catalyst for imaginative thinking about higher education.

For example, most of the spending, approximately 80 percent of college expenditures, are allocated for faculty members who teach four courses a year, two in the fall and two in the spring. Suppose one course were added to this teaching load, reducing overall expenditures significantly.

Suppose as well, that many of the public institutions that duplicate courses were replaced by private online universities that can reduce costs because bricks and mortar do not have to be maintained. There isn’t a law against the substitution of electronic universities for buildings with ivy on them.

There is no reason why a university program need to remain devoted to a four-year schedule. Capable students should be encouraged to earn degrees more quickly than has heretofore been the case.

A means test for tuition payment may make sense since many parents who can afford the tuition at private universities seek the discounted and subsidized public alternatives, saving personal funds in the process yet relying on other taxpayers to cover the full payment.

It seems to me that if public colleges and universities cannot revamp their structures and create new ways of learning, state governments will continue to limit spending. Michael Richards, president at the College of Southern Nevada, argues that the financial crisis is so chronic that “we’re trying to take a systematic approach, but it’s all in the negative.” He added, “You’re really not planning forward -- you’re planning forward for the survival of the institution.”