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.”

Alas, survival is the siren call of administrators. But for most public colleges financial support was not an issue in the past. It was one of those legislative items that sailed through with overwhelming bipartisan support. However, the times are changing and more quickly than anyone might have imagined. Even the stimulus money set aside for states’ education budgets is mostly spent for fiscal year 2011 and twenty states have none left at all, according to the Education Commission of the States.

For most educators, Chicken Little is in the driver’s seat and the sky is falling. Some contend that quality education cannot be offered as budgets are reduced. Others maintain that essential priorities will have to be altered. Still others believe that universities will no longer be the incubators for economic development.

I demur. For far too long administrators were not obliged to be creative. The money flowed whatever the outcomes on campus might be. Higher education was an untouchable budget item that sensible politicians didn’t reduce. As someone who was involved in higher education in one way or another for decades, I am confident in asserting that retrenchment need not influence the quality of teaching and research. In fact, scarce resources might be the impetus for innovative approaches to learning and financing. It might even have the effect of a major rethinking of the disciplines and how undergraduates are taught. After all, there isn’t a “right way” to learn or an optimal way to teach. It may well be that self-indulgent professors who believe that they are anointed to preach instead of teach will not be as welcome as they once were when universities were flush with public funds.

Yes, there are difficulties that will have to be confronted in some colleges and universities, but in the aggregate, survival is not the issue as much as adaptation to a changing environment. In this case the lemons that college administrators are sucking can be very sour until those lemons are converted -- with some ingenuity -- into lemonade. Let the conversion begin.