College 2.0

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute/EPI International

Last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education, in partnership with Moody’s, released a new survey of 500 CFOs at colleges and universities in the US. Given the economic conditions, it is of no surprise that the results were pessimistic about the ability of higher education to keep its collective head above water.

The most interesting comment, to me, is a quote from Northern Arizona University vice president Jennus Burton, who said that his university is “becoming a semiprivate university.”

I have news for Mr. Burton: Your university began life as a semi-private institution back in 1899. The second that colleges and universities begin to charge tuition and fee charges, they effectively become semi-private institutions. When they begin to rely on research, alumni, and other external revenue streams, they launch full-tilt into semi-private status. So let’s be real.

The real trick is to understand what College 2.0 looks like in America (and yes, Canada). READ MORE…

There is truly no public institution in the US anymore. There are institutions that receive public funding, and that probably totals over 9,000 institutions, over half of which are for-profit entities. Some of these institutions (about 1,672, including 1,000 public two-year and 672 public four-year institutions) receive direct subsidies from state governments as well as research funding. Another 1,624 private, not-for-profit institutions receive indirect funding, including research funds and specialized funding from state and federal governments. And even for-profit, proprietary institutions receive public funds via federal grants and loans. So they all receive public funds, but none rely completely on public funds. Hence, the “semi-private university.”

The semi-private university is born out of two major elements. First, there has always been a belief that students should bear part of the responsibility for the cost of their education. Considering that the individual receives much of the dividends of a college or university degree, most people agree with this premise. Second, the escalating cost, in combination with the inherent structure of higher education, has necessitated external funding to support the postsecondary “institution.”

According to the Chronicle article, only 34 percent of the 2007 Northern Arizona University budget came from state coffers. In 2012, only 24 percent will be state supported. Is it really public anymore?

Declines in state funding are certainly a major issue, but so are the escalating costs of providing a higher education that is antiquated and, arguably, ill-suited for this economy (or any economy). The institution of higher education is an outmoded model of learning. It needs to create efficiencies, become more attuned to the economy, business, and industry, and become more flexible for the needs of the individuals. There needs to be a greater link between what higher education does and what we need, societally and otherwise. But that link is, well, the weakest link. It exists mostly in the professional areas, and is non-existent in other areas (including teaching).

Creating this College 2.0 will take a generation or longer, but it will happen. The market forces will require it. In the meantime, institutions need to cut costs, states need to provide more. The federal government, unfortunately, is a bit player in this game. Pundits and critics, and especially educators, should stop expecting the federal government to play a bigger role in postsecondary education. It is probably providing a bigger role than it should at this point. The states are the culprits in this Dickensian story. The states have been remised in providing the support necessary for a “public” education. Don’t blame the feds. It isn’t their fault.

The survey was interesting, though, in finding that over 1/3 of CFOs preferred to increase teaching loads, and 17 percent would eliminate tenure. Interesting because I believe both of these things should happen. Tenure has reached its due date. Tenure is a relatively new policy, mostly in US institutions. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that policies that would become known as tenure began sprouting up, first in the Ivy-League institutions, then in more selective institutions, and then in public institutions. The purpose, of course, was to provide cover for faculty members so that donors could not demand that certain faculty members be withdrawn. And that makes sense. But even with tenure in the new millennium, we see that tenure doesn’t always protect some faculty (e.g., Ward Churchill, University of Colorado, Boulder).

But hiring and firing should be based on performance, not the ability to meet tenure after seven years and then sitting for life. This model needs to change.

The article talks of increasing material efficiencies, such as physical plant, but most of us understand that 80-85 percent of institutional costs are from human resources—salaries and benefits. And unless there is a manner of increasing the efficiencies of human resources, especially teaching and learning, college as we know it will begin to either disappear or become out of the reach of more than half the population of this country. Half.

So, for those organizations, including the federal government, that believe that we need to grow more college degrees, we are heading the wrong way. We are asking for more degrees from colleges and universities that are too expensive, out of sync with society and the economy, and take too much time out of an individual’s life to justify, to some degree, their time in education.

What we need is College 2.0.


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