In this column, I’m going to give you more about strategies for college cost containment: Today’s topic is eliminating or consolidating programs.
Universities turn to this reluctantly, when other strategies already have been used. When budget gaps are large enough or have gone on long enough, and when the budget is still not balanced — when you’re out of elegant choices, as one of my mentors liked to say — changes or cuts in academic programs must be looked at.
I am not going to argue for or against particular cuts. You will have lots of opportunities to follow these debates. Here’s a scorecard to use as these dramas play out across our state and nation.
In this corner, you have those insisting that students just need to be trained for immediate jobs, so we should cut out all the frills, that is, general education, the liberal arts, the humanities, or (fill in the blank).
Over here, there are those who stress the skills, abilities and traits of critical thinking, creative intelligence, communication, content knowledge, etc., that higher education is supposed to provide to students, usually through general education, the liberal arts, the humanities, or (fill in the blank).
Over there, there are those who say we need more graduates of STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), more computer professionals, more creative managers or nurses or (fill in the blank).
Then there are those who argue that Western Civilization will crumble if their local college does not continue to offer (fill in the blank).
Moreover, there are those who wish their favorite program (fill in the blank) to remain right there in its current form.
I’ll leave space on the scorecard for further opinions. However, these position statements (some of which contain really important considerations) are not sufficient to guide decision-making.
How to proceed?
Here I take a basic rule from innovation engineering. The success of any college that has to compete for students (that is, most of them) depends on answering this question: What can we do that makes us meaningfully unique? How can we help students to recognize that the education we offer will deliver results they value, when today they are bombarded with options they didn’t have even five years ago? As the innovation engineers tell us, if you can’t be meaningfully unique, you’d better be cheap.
In higher education, cheap is not enough to win, though it’s certainly a powerful attractor, and serious cost containment has to be a significant part of the strategy. But cheap alone will not make students come and stay. Meaningfully unique performance, and results that students and taxpayers can understand, should lead to success by students, and therefore institutions. The choices will be different for every college.
That’s why there is no one-size-fits-all. But there is a basic rule: The budget has to be balanced. Universities aren’t businesses, but even nonprofits have to end up in the black over time, especially ones whose money comes from taxpayers and students, not zillion-dollar endowments. Revenues and expenses have to match.
Here in Maine, student tuition makes up much more than half of public university operating budgets, and state support is most of the rest. Therefore, on the revenue side, what students want has to be at the center of our decision-making, and state needs have to be right up there, too.
So does that mean that we give the students whatever they want, and when the state says jump, we ask, how high? No! As with any professional service, we have to balance “what they want” with “what they should have.” Cue all the players from the scorecard above. As colleges choose a meaningfully unique mission, this where the value debates must happen.
Finally, expenses. More hard choices. If colleges are considering program elimination, it’s too late for “build it and they will come.” We built it, and they aren’t coming. Every institution in this situation has to ask: What promises can we uniquely make? How can we organize ourselves to deliver them? What do we need to emphasize, what can we do differently, what can we stop doing? How can we differentiate ourselves from competitors and deliver learning most effectively and efficiently?
The fascinating thing about this process is how the value equation balances out: What meaningfully unique goals and the accompanying creative re-engineering for innovation, revenue generation and expense control does each college in this situation choose?
There’s the scorecard and the rules. There are no easy choices.
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org