So, we need to cut costs. How does THAT work?

Attention now turns from revenues to costs.  And, I turn from preachin’ to meddln’

Many of the institutions I interface with have been confronting an unreliable revenue stream.  That’s a fancy way of saying that enrollment has been heading southward while tuition discounts spike northward. Taken together, these companions make it necessary to reduce expenses just to break even.  With society clamoring for lower prices, however, cost-cutting can’t just stop there.  Real savings are needed to rid the industry of the $100,000 debt load that some graduates have been talking about with the media.  The task is daunting, particularly in this economy, but it needs to be done.

Some brave souls are seeing their fifth or sixth year of lower revenues and have grown weary of the annual cost-cutting exercise.  The temptation is to presume some random spike in revenues so that the constant cycle of panic and pain is interrupted, if only for the few months between June 30 and September 1.  Of course, this is a recipe for even more drastic cutting, once reality sets in.

Even though many have engaged in a lot of cost-cutting in recent years, I’m not convinced that it has been done well.  My observation is that cuts tend to be made around the edges, relying on opportunistic situations and with the primary goal of avoiding pain as much as possible.  So, a person who retires or quits is not replaced – shifting here and trimming there to make the reduction stick.  Sounds noble unless it winds up accelerating the institution’s decline when a less qualified (and now overworked) employee absorbs too many tasks. “No one was laid off” but more will be when the new configurations deliver poor service to students.  Institutions long for attrition-based cuts. Students just want to be served.  Unless the place is fat with redundancy, attrition can only go so far.

Cuts also tend to fall disproportionately on staff versus faculty.  Even though fewer students are enrolled, the number of academic programs tend to continue unabated.  After all, with enrollments sliding, the argument can be made to retain even marginal programs so that numbers don’t slide even more.  The same environment/philosophy creates fertile ground for adding programs, if it is believed that students will populate them.  Faculty numbers may decline a little through a handful of opportunistic exits but, by and large, they tend to be rigid in the downward direction.  The staff thus suffers, crying out in frustration by the lack of shared sacrifice.  Sound familiar?

I want to believe that more thought can be applied to cost cutting, recognizing the role of efficiency and productivity in the process. Adding responsibilities to a staff member is not guaranteed to improve efficiency.  How hard does the staff member work already?  What kind of training will they receive to accomplish the new tasks?  What is their attitude about the entire change?  Are they happy with their compensation?  Absent consideration of these factors, attrition-based reductions look a lot like Russian Roulette.

So, let’s consider the faculty member.  Presume that the student to faculty ratio is about 16 to one and that the faculty teaching load is 80% of the typical course load of a student.  That is, a faculty member has a contract for 24 hours of teaching and the student tends to take 30 hours.  So, the average class size in this scenario will be about 20 students.  The productivity/efficiency issue comes into play when students are added to a class.  Unless the class is already at a maximum level, the addition of just two students across the board has little impact on the effectiveness of the faculty member.  It does, however, reduce the cost of the faculty member, expressed in a per student basis by 10% (2/20).

Class size cannot just be declared to be larger, however.  An institution could add another 10% to the student body and not hire any new faculty.  Of course, this is unrealistic.  In fact, with enrollments declining and the number of courses offered remaining constant, the more common tendency is for student to faculty ratios and class sizes to decline.  (And then the institution actually brags about their default 11:1 ratio!) How then do you increase class sizes in the face of declining enrollments?

The answer lies in curriculum.  For many institutions, general education courses represent introductory classes for a number of majors.  Calc I counts toward a math major, as does an English Literature Survey for the literature major, Intro to Writing for those who will be writers and the list goes on.  Combining students who plan to major in the area and those required to take general education courses, these classes tend to be full.  Their thirty to fifty students offset in part others with six and eight.

A decline in individual course population occurs when major-level students move into their upper level classes.  With the support of general education requirements gone, the real demand for a major is revealed.  Some programs operate with woefully small course populations, even though many upper level classes are taught every other year.  It is because of a concern about cutting off programs and a lack of creativity on the part of departments that course population declines are ravaging small, private institutions. I want to believe that there are some reasonable solutions.  Consider the following.

  1. The online, cooperative alternative

Because upper level courses are for majors, chances are pretty good that these students have some familiarity with the general nature of the discipline.  That is, they have reviewed research projects, textbooks and articles on many of the more popular issues of the discipline and are able to be self-learners.  These are people who may benefit from some faculty assistance or mentorship in their research or in understanding new concepts but are able to function well as an independent learner.  They are good candidates for online courses.

In an ideal world, a group of institutions band together to offer these online courses, taking advantage of the strength of particular professors to create asynchronous lectures (called up at any time, online), exams and assignments.  Imagine five liberal arts institutions creating nearly all of their non-entry level English Literature major level courses in cooperation with each other, synchronizing major requirements and course titles and offering a variety of courses each year or even each semester.  Courses that tend to average three students at each institution would average fifteen.  And, the quality will be second to none, as those faculty with the strongest background in a particular topic create theircourse.  Students are then able to interact with the best professors and compete with greater numbers of other students with like interests, compared to a one-institution program.  Even faculty hiring decisions could be made by the group, based on the specific needs identified for the cadre of institutions.

This solution, played out with five cooperative institutions, would allow for a quality program to be offered with 1/5th the faculty that a single source institution would require.

2. The multi-topic seminar

Imagine a course where the student creates their own syllabus, with a research paper and presentation required on a discipline-related topic.  Research is performed, the paper presented and grades received from peers and the facilitating faculty member.  Also, tests could be prepared, based on the content of the presentations.  This would be an alternative to offering a variety of topic-specific courses.

For a smaller institution, this allows students with diverse research interests to focus on what is of most interest to them and to fully explore that topic in a way that enhances their writing, presentation and research capabilities.  Because this kind of course replaces major level electives, one course per semester could provide students with greater options than are available when a number of specialized courses are offered.  The key will be for the student to explore a sufficient amount of discipline-specific topics over their institutional experience in order to qualify for the degree.

For many disciplines, this kind of a change could reduce upper level course offerings materially, while enhancing the student experience and even being a selling point to prospective students.  It could also be interdisciplinary, allowing for a number of related majors to participate in the same course, while exploring topics related to their own major.

3.  Combining majors

Sometimes, lower-enrolled majors can be rescued through a merger of disciplines.  If biology and chemistry are struggling, a major in biochemistry may enhance course populations.  Political science and economics are another two potential merger partners.  International business and Spanish?  Theology and Management?  The list could be quite extensive.

The idea is that the majors are indeed merged.  That is, people who want to major in Spanish will also major in international business, and vice versa.  Some may be turned off by this but many will understand the benefits of multiple disciplines and embrace the idea.  In fact, the standard of every international business major being fluent in Spanish is a recruiting benefit, even if the student is not interested in working in a Spanish speaking country. It may also assist in recruiting Spanish speaking students. Employers often require international managers to be fluent in another language.  This combination could be the ticket.

Again, the combinations may not be attractive to some but will likely increase class sizes as the majority of students understand the benefits of the combined disciplines.  And, combinations reduce the need for faculty.

4.  Business-sponsored programs

There are some skills and disciplines that are hard to find and employers would love to access a group of particularly-trained grads to fill in the needed slots.  A partnership with a nearby company may allow for the development of a skill-specific discipline, even going so far for the sponsoring organization offering loans and scholarships to the better performing students.

Students who participate in these programs will work for the sponsoring organization during summers and, potentially, throughout the school year.  The organization may offer to support a professor or provide other forms of assistance in connection with this initiative.

A guaranteed job and low debt are strong selling points.  And, the classes will likely be full or will have had the cost of the professor covered by the sponsor.


These are but a few ideas and there are likely to be plenty more.  Of course, trimming faculty numbers is a process.  Some resign or retire.  Others fail to make tenure.  The point here is to prepared for inevitable losses of faculty through these kinds of ideas.  The overriding concept is that costs must be reduced in a variety of ways in order to reduce the debt load students carry with them upon graduation.  Cuts cannot be limited to the staff.  In the aftermath of the great recession, savings have been gleaned in a variety of ways but reducing faculty costs to better imitate declining revenues has not been a common practice.  It is worth a try, however, in the interest of serving students with a sufficient number of desired programs – and in the interest of keeping the institution around.

What are your ideas?