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Justifying a College Program’s Worth

December 09, 2010 By Elizabeth Nelson, Undergraduate Research Fellow

Increasingly, students and parents are shouldering a bigger portion of Minnesota’s higher education costs at state colleges and universities.

State funding losses have resulted in tuition increases, program cuts, or a combination of both at many schools. “The division between higher education funding from the state general fund and tuition has gone from about a 70-30 split in 2001 to a nearly 50-50 split in 2010,” Minnesota 2020’s Jeff Van Wychen explains.

Fiscal analysis shows state general fund support for higher education has declined by $521 million (15.5 percent) in constant FY 2011 dollars from FY 2002-2003 to FY 2010-2011.

“State appropriations have dropped substantially in recent years from covering about 66 percent of the cost in 2002 to an expected 43 percent this year,” said MnSCU Chancellor James McCormick about his schools in a news release last May.

The Minnesota Budget Project points out that from 2000 to 2007 there was a 55% increase in MnSCU tuition and a 7% decrease in the average grant awarded.

Don Larsson, President of the Interfaculty Organization, a union representing about 3,000 full and part time faculty at Minnesota’s seven state universities, says, “It is a pretty widely accepted supposition that this is not just a one-time deal. The state’s promise of 2/3 will never come back.”

In addition to tuition hikes, most of Minnesota’s state higher education institutions are making pervasive reductions for the long-term. When it comes to reducing and reorganizing course offerings, faculty and services, it’s important to examine how colleges make these choices.

Bemidji State University follows an Academic Program Evaluation Metric in assessing programs and departments, sorting them by likelihood of their elimination. It ranges from programs not mandated by the governor, legislature or chancellor to those that are mandated. The metric also follows “high cost-low enrolment” vs. “low cost-high enrolment” when evaluating what to cut.

Minnesota State University Mankato used a similar metric early last winter, classifying programs with “The Matrix” into the categories “viable,” “semi-viable” and “needs re-organization.”

As you can guess, programs most likely considered for elimination include high cost-low enrollment, low program quality, poor student outcomes (completion, employability). Also cited as high-probability reductions are programs with “low sustainability, low innovativeness and low distinctiveness.” While data drives much of the decision making, administrators are given some discretion.

Select progress and improvement markers for each institution are available to the public online in the MnSCU “Accountability Dashboard.” The graphics point out some educational and economic successes, including “Student Engagement” and “Persistence and Completion Rate,” as well as areas calling for attention: “Net Tuition and Fees,” “Licensure Exams Pass Rate” and “Related Employment of Graduates.”

The faculty union’s Larson was part of the discussion when it came to eliminating 80 full-time faculty positions at MSU Mankato. “We looked at how to go about looking for the most fair, data-driven types of decisions. We entered to make the process fair, rational,” says Larson. Compared to how severe cuts could have been, he says it worked out fairly well.

While he says it’s been informative overall, the push to quantify every class and program in a neat metric is troublesome. Data-informed decisions can be useful, but within an institution it is not prudent to be preoccupied with quantitative analysis, Larson explains.

There is even deeper data collecting going on at public universities in other states that should concern Minnesota educators. At Texas A&M, the board created a spreadsheet scrutinizing individual faculty members in terms of a net dollar value. According to a Wall Street Journal report, this lets “taxpayers see what's going on at every public institution… letting them decide what's worth subsidizing.” Texas A&M’s 265-page spreadsheet looked at “students taught, tuition gained and research grants obtained” by faculty member.

Accountability is necessary, especially in light of Minnesota’s state budget crisis. However, it’s misleading and unfair to equate a dollar value to a faculty member.

Believe it or not, some sciences like physics, aerospace engineering and oceanography actually came out on the negative side of the ledger in the A&M spreadsheet, compared to history and English, which were economic gainers.

While administrators might get mired in the debate over financial gains and losses during a budget crunch, it’s important to remember the goal of education and the long-term value of research and knowledge to states. Just because a department consistently costs a university doesn’t mean it’s not valuable and should be scrapped. In fact, it’s the state’s obligation to fund these programs, especially if there are social and scientific gains over generations.

Currently, Bemidji State is undergoing a recalibration assessment, with preliminary results expected in early 2011. “Programs and departments are submitting information about how they are distinctive, how they can be financially sustainable, how they’re unique,” says Bill Maki, Bemidji State’s vice president for finance and administration. This month, departments and programs are submitting proposals defending their relevance in 600 words or less.

Though universally accepted measures like cost-per-student are watched regularly, the actual decisions follow a process that, as Maki puts it, “will try to be more objective, but really will come down to our subjective decisions and how that relates to the university 5 to 10 years from now.”

Maki specifies the direction that Bemidji is headed toward: “Much of our enrollment growth has been in professional programs. We added a 4-year nursing program a few years ago and we’ve seen enrollment in online courses grow disproportionately.”

On the current trajectory of decreased higher education spending and increased tuition, Minnesota will continue to fall behind compared states. Nationally, Minnesota ranked 12th in 2001, but fell to 35th in 2006 for state funding.

If higher education is truly a priority, funding must be restored. Continued disinvestment undermines Minnesota’s human capital and long-term prosperity. After severe budget cuts and fiscal crisis, it might seem like a lofty goal, but we must work toward restoring the funding that made previous generations so valuable to Minnesota’s workforce.

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  • Mike Downing says:

    December 11, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    Have universities or colleges ever considered pricing an education inversely to the need in society? For example, the U.S. is in desperate need of chemists, mathematicians and engineers. What if universities or colleges priced these degrees much lower than degrees in sociology, psychology, law, etc.?

    Our free enterprise system is based on incentives. China & India are graduating many more scientists & engineers than the U.S. This novel education pricing may be a way to sustain our high standard of living.

  • Mike Kelly says:

    December 14, 2010 at 10:06 am

    If the degree the person is seeking, does not have a track record of after college income to justify the student student loans made to them by unscrupulous bankers.  The bankers should be charged with knowingly making unsound loans,having very little chance of being repaid.  Remember colleges private or public are in a business to make money some are well managed.