Ad­dress­ing spend­ing helps stu­dents, pub­lic

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY EL­LIOTT COLE

Across the na­tion, pub­lic univer­si­ties are fac­ing se­ri­ous fis­cal chal­lenges amid statewide fund­ing re­duc­tions and de­clin­ing en­roll­ments. Ex­or­bi­tant tu­ition in­creases can no longer ad­dress the prob­lem. At the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa, Pres­i­dent James Gal­lo­gly re­cently an­nounced that 50 staff and fac­ulty po­si­tions will be cut to ad­dress a $15 mil­lion bud­get deficit. Will these sig­nif­i­cant mea­sures be suf­fi­cient to put OU on sound fi­nan­cial foot­ing for the fu­ture?

To deal with bud­get short­falls, in­sti­tu­tions must look closely at ad­min­is­tra­tive costs, which in­clude day-to-day op­er­a­tional sup­port, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tion, le­gal and fis­cal op­er­a­tions, pub­lic re­la­tions and de­vel­op­ment, etc. At the same time, they must eval­u­ate in­struc­tional spend­ing.

On the ad­min­is­tra­tive side at OU, spend­ing in­creased by over $24 mil­lion (52 per­cent) be­tween 2011 and 2016 — one of the high­est surges among com­pa­ra­ble in­sti­tu­tions in its peer group. By com­par­i­son, Ohio State Uni­ver­sity and Pur­due Uni­ver­sity only raised their ad­min­is­tra­tive spend­ing by 1 per­cent and 2 per­cent, re­spec­tively, dur­ing the same pe­riod. OU isn’t alone. Many col­leges and univer­si­ties na­tion­wide suf­fer from ad­min­is­tra­tive bloat: over­spend­ing on re­dun­dant ad­min-re­lated ser­vices.

Uni­ver­sity lead­ers need to acutely mon­i­tor and com­pare ex­pen­di­tures to their peers. They need vis­i­bil­ity into every­thing from build­ing us­age to the pro­por­tion of grad­u­ates from each depart­ment, in or­der to stream­line op­er­a­tions and plan more ef­fec­tively.

From 2011–2016, OU’s in­struc­tional spend­ing — fac­ulty salaries, aca­demic deans, li­braries, mu­se­ums, gal­leries and other costs as­so­ci­ated with sup­port­ing an in­sti­tu­tion’s pri­mary aca­demic mis­sion — rose by al­most $99 mil­lion (32 per­cent). This in­crease has been driven by the in­sti­tu­tion’s large course cat­a­log and ex­pan­sive pro­gram of­fer­ings.

This is part of a na­tion­wide trend: From 1985–2012, pub­lic four-year in­sti­tu­tions saw a 60 per­cent ex­plo­sion in the num­ber of dis­ci­plines of­fer­ing de­grees. OU pro­vides more than 100 aca­demic pro­grams. Alarm­ingly, 46 of them only pro­duce 10 grad­u­ates or fewer. Pro­gram pri­or­i­ti­za­tion is key to solv­ing this prob­lem. Through data gath­er­ing, uni­ver­sity lead­er­ship can ac­cu­rately as­sess the long-term sus­tain­abil­ity of low-en­rolled pro­grams, which dis­pro­por­tion­ally in­crease spend­ing and im­pose huge bur­dens on in­sti­tu­tional bud­gets.

Gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion at col­leges and univer­si­ties has be­come an end­less — and ex­pen­sive — col­lec­tion of nar­row and spe­cial­ized cour­ses di­vided into buck­ets known as dis­tri­bu­tional re­quire­ments. Stu­dents of­ten take one or two cour­ses from each bucket to as­sem­ble their own cur­ricu­lum as they pre­pare to se­lect a ma­jor. At OU, stu­dents have ac­cess to more than 900 cour­ses to ful­fill their gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion core.

Merg­ing de­part­ments into larger in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary schools can sub­stan­tially re­duce costs and en­hance ed­u­ca­tional qual­ity. Ari­zona State Uni­ver­sity saved over $13 mil­lion by solely elim­i­nat­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive re­dun­dancy — no fac­ulty po­si­tions were elim­i­nated. Con­sol­i­dat­ing ma­jors and only teach­ing cour­ses that ful­fill gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion and ma­jor re­quire­ments will stream­line course of­fer­ings and could save up to 10 per­cent of in­struc­tional costs per se­mes­ter. At most pub­lic fouryear in­sti­tu­tions, in­struc­tional spend­ing on av­er­age equates to half of the bud­get; there­fore, slim­ming course of­fer­ings will yield ma­jor sav­ings.

We ap­plaud the ini­tial steps taken by Gal­lo­gly. This is cer­tainly no easy task, but by in­ves­ti­gat­ing ad­min­is­tra­tive and in­struc­tional costs, the uni­ver­sity will reap sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits for its stu­dents and Ok­la­homa tax­pay­ers.

Cole is pro­gram of­fi­cer for com­mu­ni­ca­tions at the Amer­i­can Coun­cil of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a non­par­ti­san non­profit ded­i­cated to aca­demic free­dom, ex­cel­lence and ac­count­abil­ity in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

El­liott Cole

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