Bernie Sanders won the majority of the Democratic youth vote in this year’s primary by promoting free college, a position quickly echoed by Hillary Clinton. With rising tuition costs, and the ongoing student debt crisis, university budgets are on the public’s mind more than usual. So it bears asking, what kinds of solutions and innovations are university presidents and state lawmakers coming up with to deal with these problems?
At the 6th annual Texas Tribune Festival, University of Texas-Austin President Greg Fenves was joined by Robert Duncan, Chancellor of the Texas Tech University system, and three current and former lawmakers to discuss the challenges of financing higher education in the 21st century.
All of the panelists acknowledged the need for universities to cut their annual budget. They correctly surmised that if universities are going to keep tuition from rising, universities in Texas will need to be more efficient.
The main method for improving efficiency that they discussed was bringing time-to-graduation rates down from five or six years to four. It might be surprising to learn that only 58 percent of students who entered a Texas university in 2011 had graduated four years later. This truly is a financial problem. But it also indicates that many university students are biding their time in the comfortable college setting and putting off the real world. And why wouldn’t they? After all, universities have increasingly become young-adult playgrounds.
Ironically, one of the solutions proposed by State Representative Helen Giddings for improving time-to-graduation was to hire new staff whose sole job would be “student success”—another non-faculty administrative position. This staff would theoretically help students who don’t know how to navigate the process do things like change majors efficiently.
But one can’t help wondering, isn’t this the role that advisors typically play? As another panelist, Senator Kel Seliger, noted, students aren’t accessing the advising resources that are already available to them. So what good would another office or initiative do? It’s typical of lawmakers to try to increase efficiency and save on costs by adding another layer of bureaucracy.
Of course, the one cost-saving measure that wasn’t discussed is the sticky topic of administrative bloat that plagues most universities. New offices or non-faculty jobs are continually created out of a perceived need to provide students with more and more services. This includes things like bias centers and gender pronoun police.
One of the budgetary problems that higher ed administrators and state lawmakers have in common is that both are reticent to cut jobs and take away services. But if universities are serious about economizing, and if politicians really want U.S. taxpayers to subsidize college, they’re going to have to re-envision what the college experience looks like. In addition to stricter rules about time-to-graduation, this is going to mean moving toward the community college model—and away from the all-inclusive resort.