Affordable colleges: What can universities do to keep costs down?

‘Affordable colleges’ can mean different things depending on the vantage point. For chief financial officers at schools, affordable colleges could mean heavier teaching loads and rising tuition.

If the top business officers at America’s colleges had their druthers, professors would have heavier teaching loads, and tuition would keep rising.

According to a new survey, those were the most frequent strategies cited to cut costs and raise revenue if – and it’s a big if – the financial officers didn’t have to worry about consequences among various constituencies.

Two-thirds said they had already raised tuition and fees for this coming school year by 3 to 6 percent.

Overall, colleges’ financial outlook is growing brighter, with 39 percent saying they are more optimistic about their institution’s financial prospects than they were a year ago, according to the survey of 500 chief financial officers by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Moody’s.

Jobs at colleges seem relatively safe for the upcoming school year, with 78 percent of CFOs saying they were unlikely to have layoffs. But one-third said they planned to reduce retirement or health-care benefits this year.

CFOs offer just one perspective, of course, on the challenges to having affordable colleges in the United States.

“CFOs are more likely to say the problem is on the faculty side of the ledger,” says Jane Wellman, executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability in Washington. “One of the big problems in higher education is a deep divide between the people who do the money and the people who do everything else,” she says, and that’s led to a lack of good communication about college costs.

The issue of faculty productivity and tenure is the subject of much debate, but rarely much action.

Teaching loads for faculty have generally gone down over the past several decades, says Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington. Although some professors bring in external money for research, others write obscure papers at tremendous expense to the university, he says.

Among the CFOs, 38 percent say they’d like to see teaching loads increased. But “if a president tried to implement an across-the-board increase in teaching loads, there would be enormous uprising,” Mr. Vedder says.

Faculty representatives say calls to add to teaching loads don’t acknowledge the value of research and the service that faculty perform on and off campus. At many schools, they point out, professors already teach loads just as full as yesteryear.

“The decisions on teaching load need to reflect the mission and the priorities of the institution, as well as the balance of duties for an individual and a department,” says John Curtis, director of research and public policy at the American Association of University Professors in Washington, in an e-mail to the Monitor. He also points out that attracting and retaining faculty is an important goal (cited by 23 percent of the CFOs as one of the top “internal issues” on their campus).

A smaller set of CFOs, 17 percent, say they’d like to eliminate tenure. But that won’t necessarily save money, says Sandy Baum, a higher-education analyst and a senior fellow at George Washington University’s school of education. “Tenure is part of compensation, so you’d have to pay higher wages for the loss of job security,” she says.

In other results, the CFO survey found a bleaker outlook at public two-year colleges than at schools overall: 42 percent of CFOs at these institutions are less optimistic than a year ago.

For public colleges and universities, the biggest worry – cited by 9 out of 10 CFOs – is the decline in state financial support.

And at private colleges, 7 out of 10 say the biggest concern is the “tuition discount rate” (the level of financial aid offered by the college) to get students in the door.

While many CFOs were optimistic about their financial situation, another new survey – of 600 CFOs by Inside Higher Ed – finds that about 60 percent do not believe that their institution “can make additional and significant budget cuts without hurting quality.”

Still, from Pennsylvania to California, many state college and university systems will indeed be looking at cuts again in the coming year.

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