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How public universities can brace for budget cuts without increasing tuition
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Oklahoma scrambles to cuts costs, but are phony research, cushy schedules and bloated administration the real problem? - photo by Eric Schulzke
Public universities in many states are scrambling to cover rising costs even as state commitment to cover them tapers off.

Colorado is currently facing steep budget cuts, with $20 million likely to be slashed from higher education, according to The Rocky Mountain Collegian.

Kentucky universities, meanwhile, are seeking to restore cuts in the face of pressure from Medicaid expansion and underfunded pensions. Higher ed has been slashed there for seven of the last eight years, WKU Public Radio reports.

The same is true in Oklahoma. "We are making plans today and we have the past two months to be prepared to deal with what will be a very significant budget deficit," Oklahoma Higher Education Chancellor Glen Johnson told The Oklahoman last week.

The same story could be told of state higher ed spending in almost every state: budgets under pressure, while costs and tuition climb. Given these realities, are public universities making the systemic changes needed to regain fiscal balance?

"They havent," writes Steven Pearlstein, a Washington Post columnist and a professor of public affairs at George Mason University. "Oh, yes, pay and hiring have been frozen, travel budgets cut, secretaries eliminated and class sizes increased, even as cheaper graduate students and adjunct professors have been hired to teach more. Everything has been done that can be done except changing the traditions, rhythms and prerogatives of academic life."

Pearlstein offers four suggestions to radically alter the cost structure of college: (1) cap administrative costs, which increasingly have diverted resources out of the classroom and into bureaucracies, (2) operate year-round, five days a week, (3) pare back on useless research, and (4) streamline general education so students get through college faster.

One of the most toughest critiques Pearlstein levels is that most of what passes for research in most disciplines contributes nothing of value to student success or the society writ large.

He cites Page Smith, a professor of history at the University of California and a noted historian, who wrote in her 1991 book "Killing the Spirit": The vast majority of the so-called research turned out in the modern university is essentially worthless. It does not result in any measurable benefit to anything or anybody. ... It is busy work on a vast, almost incomprehensible scale.

The answer, Pearlstein argues, is for teachers to teach more, jettisoning the cushy "two classes twice a year" model that has become the norm at most major research universities, and teaching summers as well. The result, he argues, would be better use of physical and human resources.

On the administrative front, Pearlstein says that the bloat of non-teaching positions can't really be explained by increased government regulation, though that does contribute. He cites a recent report by Bain & Company, which concluded, "In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate executives would lose their jobs.