Six more American colleges and universities are cutting academic departments and tenure-line faculty, according to Inside Higher Ed. Last week I dubbed this “the queen sacrifice” option, because it represented institutions sacrificing from their core teaching and research mission.
What do these sacrifices look like? Let me pull some examples from that article.
Pennsylvania: “Holy Family University in Philadelphia cut 40 staff positions – about 7 percent of the staff – and, partially through retirements, reduced the number of full-time faculty to 81 from 100. The university is also shelving low-demand programs…”
In Kentucky, the “new president of the small Woodford County college, John Marsden, said… ‘After exhausting all other options, some faculty contracts will be eliminated from this fiscal year in order to balance the budget.’ Spokeswoman Ellen Gregory said she was unsure of the exact number of affected faculty, but thought it would be around a dozen out of a total faculty of 54.”
I was struck by two stories from the past few days. Each was interesting, but the combination seemed to encapsulate our moment in the Web’s history.
Item: Sir Tim Berners-Lee calls for ordinary people to take back the Web. He helped launch a site and, hopefully, a movement, The Web We Want. This celebrates “an open, universal Web.” That’s one which “enables everyone on the planet to participate in a free flow of knowledge, ideas, collaboration and creativity.”
Item: scholarly publishing company Elsevier sent thousands of take-down notices to scholars who had republished copies of papers they’d authored.
In case you’re not sure where I’m going with this, recall what else Berners-Lee et al say about the open Web: “It is essential to education”.
What a college queen sacrifice looks like: Minnesota State Moorhead’s plans to reduce a large deficit.
Those plans begin at the program level:
five low enrollment majors would be phased out and some academic departments merged.
Which majors will be cut?
American Multicultural Studies (4 students), Medical Laboratory Technician (14 students), Masters in Fine Arts (22 students), Music Composition (3 students) and Community Health (21 students).
Some American campuses are still cutting programs and faculty five years into the Great Recession/some-sort-of-recovery. The most recent examples: twelve Pennsylvania universities. One Minnesota university. One in Washington, D.C. One in Vermont. Adjuncts go, of course, but also tenure-track and tenured faculty. These schools are cutting programs and departments, which means tenure’s protection doesn’t matter as much.
What if this isn’t a blip, but a trend?
Let’s call this strategy academia sacrifices its queen.* That’s a risky chess move where one player gives up their most powerful piece in order to win the game.
I picked this metaphor not because chess is cool, but because it represents the combination of self-destructive sacrifice and hope for gain that administrations are selecting. They cut some academic programs – their core mission! – to save money and their reputation.
And the thing of it is, the thing that keeps me up nights, the horrible truth of the moment is that the queen sacrifice makes all kinds of sense for American colleges and universities.
Consider. Schools are under enormous pressure to cut costs. Students hate the specter of loans, especially traditional-age soon-to-be-grads facing a horrible job market. Parents: the same. Politicians of both stripes (despite Salon’s goofy take) and all levels, including the president, are hammering at campuses to haul down tuition prices. The persistence of the college premium (lifetime earnings boost from an undergrad degree), the actually fairly low amount of average debt… these facts haven’t assuaged the outrage over ever-rising prices.
So what can a campus administration do?
“Whatever Happened to Podcasting?” asks Mark Ramsey, and it’s a good question. As Ramsey notes, podcasting still happens, with people making and listening to digital audio, often through syndication. And yet “podcasting is most certainly off the media radar.”
That is clear to me, and Ramsey finds Google Trends offering pretty stark evidence on this score:
Google Trends for “podcasting”, 2005-2013
So why didn’t podcasting go further than that downward slope? Why doesn’t it have a broader reach now?
American colleges and universities continue to suffer from financial stresses, five years after the worst financial crisis in generations. Nearly half are facing trouble over the next year, and things are getting somewhat worse. That’s according to ratings agency Moody’s.*
Let’s take a close look at the press release (because the report itself is behind a very high paywall) and note some key points.
- About one quarter of schools are seeing tuition go down: “net tuition revenue declines at a projected 28% of public and 19% of private universities”. Worse, that number is bigger than it was last year: “In our prior survey, 15% of public and 18% of private universities projected net tuition revenue declines.”
- Nearly half of American institutions are seeing tuition growth so small that inflation beats it: “net tuition revenue growth below inflation projected for 44% of public and 42% of private universities”. Recall that inflation is tiny, just about 2%, so these “growth” numbers are in the 0.1-1.9% range. Consider this a decline in real terms, or at best a plateau.
- Why is this happening? Fewer students, mostly: “total enrollment declines at nearly half of public and private universities.” This is something I’ve been tracking very carefully (peak education, crunch time, inflection point, more peak education), more inflection point).
- Note the other reasons Moody’s offers: “The cumulative effects of depressed family incomes and net worth, softened student market demand at current tuition prices, combined with political and regulatory pressure will impede top-line revenue growth”. The continued weak economy plays a major role. The specter of high tuition and associated debt might be keeping students away from college, or down-shifting to less prestigious, less expensive campuses. And Obama’s new rating system is explicitly designed to bring down tuition.
- This is a problem for public institutions as well as privates: ”Anemic tuition revenue growth has spread to a larger share of the higher education industry, infecting public universities for the first time in decades.” This is due in part to reduced state support, which doesn’t seem likely to change in the near future.
What does this grim analysis mean for higher education, technology, and the near future? Some quick thoughts:
How can wearable computing shape teaching and learning? ELI‘s Veronica Diaz and I think it through.
Thanks to Gerry Bayne for editing and sharing.