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Commentary: Use Pandemic to Rein in Higher Education Costs

Tuition has been too expensive for years, so the health crisis should be the impetus to finally institute important education reforms.

Commentary: Use Pandemic to Rein in Higher Education Costs
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The recent article on reinventing business education published in the May issue of Twin Cities Business was thought-provoking because U.S. higher education does indeed need to be reinvented.

Education is, of course, an essential and all-important task, well beyond the mere practicality of preparing students for gainful employment. And, thankfully, we are blessed with many highly dedicated and responsible professionals who do their jobs well. So, these capable practitioners can be the foundation of the reinventing that is now made mandatory because of the pressing circumstances of fewer students, rising costs, and attenuated funding from governments, companies, and less affluent alumni.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, college graduate starting salaries have been increasing over the years by roughly 2.85 percent per year. College costs, however, have been increasing at rates exceeding 7 percent. Meanwhile, government support for education is constrained because of other expenditures for healthcare, entitlements, public pensions, and other needs. The result has been rapidly accelerating student debt that will quite likely unfavorably impact family formations, housing purchases, and other economic activity.

Educational quality is occasionally quite good, but we have many unfavorable variances which both cost money and reduce value to our customers. Some academics improve society with their research and enlightening scholarship. Many of these are the most memorable teachers. Others are far less active, and the higher education system has become rather casual in insulating less active people from any adverse effects due to their lower performance.

Many academics do not do enough work. While many people labor 2,000 hours in a single year, the classroom contact hours for professors range from around 160 hours in research universities to about 360 hours per year in mainline colleges. Of course, many other needed tasks are performed, including class preparation, student counseling, research, and community outreach.

The problem is that a relatively small percentage of faculty members perform all of these important functions and do them well. Some others do very little or do them poorly. Well-credentialed and lower cost adjunct professors, equipped with extensive relevant experience, are often much higher rated by students than the more insulated full-time staff with far less experience.

Education, today, is wasteful. It has too many people and too much superfluous real estate. Nationally, only around 10 percent of university real estate is in classrooms. Most of the space is for offices, meeting rooms, lounging areas, or for sports facilities or entertainment.

But to what degree are all of these facilities truly integral to the vital task of education with which professors have been entrusted? The system is a far cry from the well-functioning one-room school I attended as a young boy. That model is not suitable to the complexities of a modern society, but the versatility and dedication of many of those teachers was to be greatly admired.

Education now faces the same situation that much of industry has faced for several decades. We must, in order to survive, improve our quality and reduce our cost simultaneously. And, we must do it quickly before our resources are exhausted.

Ultimately, if we do not get this fixed, many of our educational enterprises, public and private, will be in jeopardy. Students will drift away, or not come. Governments, already throttled by far more demands on shrinking resources, will gradually withdraw support. Parents, buffeted by declining asset values, will lose interest, too. The future of education is bleak unless internal changes are made from within. And, it is only in making these overdue improvements that we can provide our customers with a positive return on their investment.

Prescriptions for reinventing higher education

We can take a more positive approach because there is much that we can do:

  1. Stop building anything. We can update laboratories, repurpose some spaces, and perform needed maintenance. But higher education does not need more space.
  1. Have faculty members do more work. Most dedicated scholars would be happy to do it and the contact hours addition of one class per professor would amount to about 3 percent of the usual yearly work hours of most employed people.
  1. Be selective about who does the teaching. Having a class with an acclaimed professor is a great treat. But, in an academic version of “bait and switch,” many of our universities have many important classes being taught by inexperienced and far less impressive graduate students—thus denying the students the quality education commensurate with the university they are attending.
  1. Either make tenure meaningful or get rid of it. Tenure, which is a rather recent convention, was initially designed to safeguard academic rigor. It should not be used as guaranteed employment for faculty members who are not contributing.
  1. Strengthen the natural bond between theoretical and applied research by inviting industrial specialists to both participate in research projects and provide influential and relevant teaching. Both the teaching and the research could become more substantive.
  1. Put college athletics in its place. According to University of Minnesota marketing professor Bill Rudelius, only 20 of the 1,083 NCAA member schools reported a profit on their sports activities. The cost of college coaches and facilities is often embarrassing. College athletes are supposedly attending institutions of higher learning, but that is not always detectable.

The coronavirus pandemic will impact much of the world’s economy. But, for education, it could be the blessing that makes necessary an overdue critique of the way we manage our important task of educating the nation.

Fred Zimmerman

Fred Zimmerman

Professor Fred Zimmerman has taught in four U.S. universities and two overseas. He helped found the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering. At St. Thomas, he served as a professor of manufacturing systems engineering and international management. He also has been a board director for more than 10 companies.

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