Hard Times For Higher Education

Every week it seems, the recession brings more bad news for American colleges. As endowments decline, even prestigious private institutions have announced unprecedented hiring freezes. Public colleges and universities are girding for cuts in state support. The California State University system, the nation’s largest, has already warned it may need to reduce enrollment by 10,000 students next academic year. A quality college education is more important than ever, but the economy is making it less accessible for students, and now even threatening the health of colleges themselves.

This quote from an article by Charles Karelis and Stephen J. Trachtenberg (Trachtenberg is president emeritus of George Washinton University) pretty much sums up the recent news about the state of higher. I follow higher education news closely and my only comment about their statement is that it’s more like “every day” not every week that more bad news about the state of American higher education is released. If it isn’t a new indicator of the dire financial situation of IHEs, it’s a new study sounding warnings about the imminent collapse of students, faculty, endowments or some other critical issue that signals the decline of higher education.

In particular, a study released on December 3, 2008 hit hard and received widespread media coverage. According to the biennial report titled Measuring Up 2008, from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the rising cost of college threatens to put higher education out of reach for most Americans. The Center’s president, Patrick M. Callan, was quoted saying “If we go on this way for another 25 years, we won’t have an affordable system of higher education”. So higher education is being hammered on multiple fronts. Endowments and investments have lost enormous amounts of their value. The public and legislators are calling for colleges and universities to hold down costs. The ramifications for the future are significant. Despite all the criticism being heaped on the higher education industry in America no one denies that our current population is earning fewer degrees, tomorrow’s citizens face reduced access to higher education, and the bottom line is that our global competitiveness itself is at stake. A real mess.

Other pundits are jumping on the bandwagon and gaining attention for their plans on how to run higher education institutions more economically and hold them accountable to cost savings. We hear about moving to three-year degree programs, eliminating summer and winter breaks in favor of keeping students in class year round, and introducing more online learning programs (have you noticed that the for-profit education system, those highly invested in online learning, are the only ones doing well right now). For example, Kevin Carey is in the limelight with his recent article titled “Transformation 101” which appeared in the Nov-Dec 2008 issue of Washington Monthly. Carey’s point is that higher education institutions should be leveraging technology to become more efficient and less costly. He writes:

Colleges are perfectly capable of becoming more efficient and productive, in the same way that countless other industries have: through technology. And increasingly, they are. One of the untold stories in higher education is that the cost of teaching is starting to decline, but virtually none of those savings are being passed along to students and parents in the form of lower prices. Instead, colleges are pocketing the difference, even as they continue to jack up tuition bills.

Hardly the kind of talk colleges and universities want to hear. But there are also some good points in the article so it’s of value to academic librarians. We know that our institutions are using technology to achieve efficiencies in teaching and administration. But they are also caught up in the rankings competition and that can lead to excessive spending.

Scott Walter pointed me to two posts that report on the freefall in most academic job markets, particularly in the humanities, and evidenced by a post at Leiter Reports that encouraged readers to submit reports of cancelled job searches in philosophy. Everyday we hear new reports of institutions establishing job freezes, travel freezes, freezes on building plans, and it may not be long before the news turns more to layoffs (some have begun), journal cancellations and other signs of significant change. This reminds me of a similar period in the early 1980s when the economy was in a nosedive and inflation was spiraling. Governments were in trouble. Back then the phrase of the period was “cutback management”; how do you run an efficient operation when your resources are being cut right and left. I even published an article about this back then . The point of the article was that library organizations needed to be proactive in these uncertain times. Cutback managers don’t wait until the axe falls on the budget and staff. They are out there disseminating a message to the top administrators about the library’s value to the organization, and the ways in which libraries can actually save the organization money.

Now that the calendar has turned to 2009 the news is still full of reports of higher education institutions that are anticipating severe drops in funding and/or revenue (such as both the UC and CSU systems and too many others to mention here), but I’ve also seen other articles taking guesses at whether we’ll see a recovery in 2009 or whether it will take until 2010 – or possibly even longer. So far, despite the challenges to higher education institutions, academic libraries seem to be holding their own. I’ve heard few stories of significant cuts to book or e-resource budgets, cancellations of new buildings or large renovation projects or worse yet, layoffs. It will be interesting to see how much that situation changes by the time ALA Annual rolls around. Until the sick global economy begins its turnaround perhaps the best strategy right now is for our academic library community to share information about economic-driven change, along with strategies and innovations that may help us to promote the great value we provide to our institutions. Have something to share? Leave a comment – now or anytime over the next few months when you have something to add to this conversation.

6 thoughts on “Hard Times For Higher Education”

  1. Although the proposal is still being worked out, I’ve read that much of the forthcoming stimulus is expected to go towards state and local governments to help maintain services and improve infrastructure. I would think that libraries (both academic and public) would benefit from such funding.

    An area of particular opportunity, in my view, is using federal funds to sustainably retrofit older library buildings in an effort to improve their efficiency over the short and long term (using the US Green Building Council’s LEED approach). Although I’m uncertain whether such efforts could be extended beyond public libraries to state-funded academic libraries.

  2. My husband is looking for a full time teaching position in philosophy. (He’s been teaching adjunct since we left our old positions over a year ago.) He had an interview at the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division convention back in December. There were over 800 job candidates registered (at the time he signed in) and fewer than 120 schools actually interviewing for positions. And he’s already received letters from schools saying “we’ve cancelled the position, won’t you please reapply when we repost sometime in the nebulous future?”

    And the community college where I work is operating on an extremely short library staff – the director left this past summer, and they’ve decided not to re-hire, nor have they filled any of the other positions that were vacated by folks changing jobs. That plus the state proration on the education budget means that not only do we not have enough staff to competently assist our students with the resources we do have, we also are not allowed to purchase any new books (or even pencils!) for the forseeable future.

  3. More faculty involvement can certainly be helpful, but a more direct approach to assuring accountability is for the Institute’s internal audit function to be strenghthened. The Board’s Audit Committee itself should be composed of board members who are themselves independent of all other committees on the board and at least one of them should have strong financial expertise; it should have internal audit report solely to itself for substantive purposes, reserving to itself the hiring and firing of the audit director and determination of the audit director’s salary adjustments.

    Faculty involvement is always welcome, but faculties notoriously work too slowly and cannot move as nimbly through the books as an experienced auditor can.

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