The talented education bloggers at The Quick and the Ed have turned their attention to a topic dear to the hearts of us at Minding the Campus (see my March 31 opinion piece for the Washington Examiner): the reluctance of colleges and universities to take serious steps to cut costs in the face of shrunken endowments, declining donations, legislature-mandated budget cuts, and the increasing unwillingness or inability on the part of students or their parents hit hard by the current recession to pay tuition and living costs that can easily reach $50,000 a year.
The Quick and the Ed bloggers link to a New York Times article listing such cost-cutting measures at public and private universities as:
— Elimination of land phone lines by the University of Washington’s communications department (net savings: about $121,000 a year).
— Cutting out a day of student orientation at Whittier College in California (net savings: $50,000).
— Switching from bottled water to tap water at most events at Davidson College near Charlotte, N.C. (net savings: $10,000).
— A student competition to turn off lights and unplug chargers and printers at Susquehanna University in Selingsgrove, Pa. (net savings: $3,000).
— The holding of a “virtual swim meet” instead of a real swim meet by the women’s swim team at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. (net savings: $900, although Dickinson is squeezing another $225,000 a year out of its budget by cutting back on free laundry service and free ESPN and HBO for students who live in its dormitories).
All of that sounds nice—until you consider that $121,000 is chump change for the University of Washington, which has had its annual budget—typically in the range of $750 million–cut by $214 million by the state. Whittier, a private liberal arts institution with a student body of 1,300 (its most famous graduate was President Richard Nixon), has an annual operating budget of $80 million. Pinching $50,000 out of student orientation (plus another $60,000 by eliminating trays from the student cafeteria to cut food waste) won’t do much to save Whittier significant money. And no one at Susquehanna seems to have figured in the administrative costs of running an energy-saving competition—or what happens when the competition is over, the free pizzas handed to participating dorms as prizes eaten, and the incentives to unplug gone.
All of those questions occurred to the bloggers at The Quick and the Ed. They wrote:
“Cutting free laundry service, HBO, unlimited printing [a recently rescinded student perk at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.), and bottled water, these are the best the Times could come up with? See anything in the list about revamping the curriculum, developing online content, re-thinking the deployment of professors, re-establishing teaching as dominant over research, or anything more substantive than cafeteria trays?…
“But so far journalists covering these issues have yet to write about any sweeping, dynamic change that a higher education institution has pursued to cut costs or dramatically change the way they do business as a result of budget constraints.”
As the bloggers pointed out, universities can save real money only by eliminating entire academic programs, insisting that the professors they retain do more teaching, and substantially trimming the vast administrative staffs (counseling offices, diversity offices, “green” coordination offices, and so forth) hired over the past few decades in the name of providing “student services.”
Because such cuts can involve firing people with campus political clout (including tenured faculty likely to bring lawsuits), administrators have been reluctant to make them. Only a few institutions hit with enormous budget shortfalls have made some of those tough decisions, and the upshot hasn’t been pretty. As the Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, Washington State University, facing $54 million in budget cuts over the next two years, has announced it will get rid of its theater and dance department, its master’s program in community and rural sociology, and its German major, which awarded only four degrees in 2008. The Louisiana state university system eliminated the philosophy major at its Lafayette campus. Students, faculty, and alumni at both campuses staged protests and letter-writing campaigns—but university officials and trustees have remained adamant about the cuts, pointing to low demand for the about-to-be-terminated majors. It’s sad, of course, when almost no college students want to study Aristotle or read Franz Kafka in the original, but keeping resource-draining programs on life support hasn’t made economic sense to administrators facing the hard reality of serious cost-cutting.
Commenters to the New York Times story raised an additional issue: Why have universities been offering such goodies as free printing and HBO in dorm rooms in the first place? One commenter who had gone to college during the 1960s, when the only dorm amenity consisted of a pay phone on every floor and take-it-or-leave-it mystery meat for dinner in the dining hall had this to say:
“Free laundry for students: $150,000 a year at a school with around 2300 students. We had to gather up quarters and put them in machines in the basement of the dorm.
“Free TV in dorm rooms including ESPN and HBO. HBO and ESPN alone at $75,000 for 2300 students. We had one TV in the student lounge in the dorm (and for entertainment, we read books, went to films on campus for which we paid an entrance fee, did things outside,…..)
“Free printing. We had to take dimes and put them in the photocopier.”
Another New York Times commenter wrote:
“Why don’t we get back to the real purpose of higher education–liberal arts education and preparation for a career–rather than an expensive baby-sitting service for youngsters as they go through a ‘rite of passage’? Bare bones dorms, healthy basic meals, facilities for the promotion of scholarship rather than lounging around.”
Good points all—and more examples of the kind of serious cost-cutting—and all-around seriousness–that courageous university administrators ought to be reviving at a time when an expense-be-damned college education is turning into a thing of the past.