How to fix some of public higher education in the real world, NOW.

On Sunday, I described six realities of public higher education spending, and I promised some ideas to address those realities. That sounds like a tall order, given the political and institution ambitions that drive a solid chunk of funding decisions, especially for public research universities. But let a cynical historian try his hand at a few nudges…

  1. Make all general-education requirements tuition- and fee-free at community colleges and non-research colleges and universities. Make this goal the highest priority of new higher-education funding in your state, with the first new dollars going towards community colleges for general-education classes. This will require that states fully fund the instructional costs of courses that meet general-education requirements, something that should be possible, given the rising revenues of many states and the typical “balance-wheel” dynamics of higher-ed funding, where funding goes down disproportionately in recessions and up disproportionately in good times.1 Offering general-education coursework without colleges’ being able to charge students does not go as far as Robert Samuels or others would like in terms of making college entirely tuition- and fee-free, but it may be politically feasible.2 Such an arrangement would mean that starting college would create minimal financial risk for weak students, it would give a significant incentive to community colleges in terms of helping students succeed in those first courses (and get beyond them), and it would eliminate the crazy financial hazard that sometimes pops up with dual enrollment courses that count as both high school and college credit, such as happened this year in Florida.3 If the state has to fully fund general-education courses, there is no conflict between K-12 and community-college districts. Addendum: See Reed’s full-length set of concerns and my response.
  2. Set a long-term ratio of state support for general instruction vs. line-item support of individual projects. There is no way to eliminate political pressures for special projects in public higher education–that goes with the territory of public institutions. But what can and should happen within states is a long-term agreement (revised on occasion) that most higher education funding be devoted to general instruction, with special line-item projects capped at a certain percentage each budget cycle. What percentage? That will depend on the state and will need to be negotiated … and occasionally renegotiated. Setting an overall state cap on line-item project support will allow the political jockeying for support to happen without causing irreparable harm to the general instructional budget.4
  3. Set a firm two-year deadline for the reorientation of institutional financial aid towards needy students. State legislatures should mandate that within two years (i.e., the 2015-16 year), the vast majority of institutional financial aid should be distributed to those with financial need as documented on FAFSA (the free federal application for student assistance). The same should be true of statewide scholarship programs, but that is often very difficult to sell to constituents. On the other hand, severely limiting institutional aid except for demonstrated financial need is much more politically feasible and will focus on the worst behavior of research universities that abandon poor in-state students in a chase for prestigious out-of-state students.
  4. Set a three-year deadline for limited athletic financial dependence. State legislatures should mandate that within three years (i.e., the 2016-17 year), the interscholastic athletic program of each public college and university depend on state and student dollars for no more than 15-20% of total operational spending and no more than 20% of capital expenditures.5 Different states and institutions have different ways of subsidizing athletic programs, sometimes with student fees, sometimes with state funds, sometimes a mix. The numbers here may need some adjustment, but after the establishment of a basic interscholastic athletic program, there should be a requirement for large athletic programs to pay their way in expanding both the operational and capital sides of the business (and yes, I meant the business of interscholastic athletics).
  5. Require that at least half of the incentives for presidents/chancellors be comprised of tangible public-good benchmarks, not prestige benchmarks. Presidential/chancellor contracts often include large bonuses for hitting various institutional targets. Capping public funds for presidential compensation is not a practical strategy–Florida has done it for years, and that hasn’t stopped some foolish and short-term behaviors by institutional leaders. Nor is it a feasible strategy to cap compensation in general.6 But legislators and statewide boards can require that the incentives not be weighted mostly or entirely towards expensive prestige goods such as U.S. News rankings.
  6. Require research universities to establish plans for graceful degradation of doctoral programs.7 The Chronicle story this week on the end of the economics doctorate at the University of Florida must be causing heartache among former students and faculty, as happens with every closure of a doctoral program. I know a little more about the situation at the University of Florida than most Chronicle readers, but I want to step back and look at the bigger question of whether and how public research universities should shut down doctoral programs. Research universities have to be able to shut down programs, or we have to ban new doctoral programs in a number of areas, or we have to accept that the vast majority of Ph.D.s in some areas will never get jobs using their skills. Oh, wait, it looks like we are living with the default choice: unused doctorates and adjunct-only careers in many fields. I suppose we could forever ban new entrants into doctoral education, but that would endorse the historical choices of all existing research universities regardless of how well incumbent programs are working. The only sane approach in the long term is to let new programs enter, but also to figure out some way to close doctoral programs without unnecessary heart-rending (there will inevitably be gut-wrenching; the point here is to avoid unnecessary damage). For faculty, there should be plans for alternative assignments (not layoffs–make university administrators do the hard work of figuring out how to avoid layoffs), with perhaps a tutorial model of doctoral education (such as Leonard Cassuto proposed) as an intermediate plan for shrinking or troubled programs.8 If a requirement were universal in a state, faculty would have an incentive to draft their own plans lest something be imposed from above.9 This proposal is more tentative than the others: I am not sure how productive it is to require research universities to have alternative plans for faculty in all small doctoral programs, but having some general options (more teaching at masters and undergraduate levels, options to switch departments) would be important, with such a requirement as a gentle but firm reminder that doctoral programs need to help their students and graduates in concrete ways to justify a program’s continued existence.

This list is incomplete. For example, there are several types of long-term commitments whose expenses are more difficult to cap: expansion of health programs and auxiliaries, on the one hand, and residential facilities and commitments, on the other.


  1. For the record, I have no idea whether or how to extend this to developmental courses. Because of the ongoing criticism of remedial education practices in community colleges, including suggestions that colleges replace developmental courses with on-the-spot assistance within credit classes, there are probably a range of legitimate, possible policies. []
  2. Holyoke Community College academic affairs VP Matt Reed suspects that all such promises are vulnerable to state budget cuts. Ideally, this type of program should be partially funded by the federal government in the same way that the SCHIP program for children’s health care has been fairly stable, politically, since its creation in 1997. I think that in a number of states, having general-education courses be tuition- and fee-free would be reasonably sustainable, but I cannot argue that Reed is being irrational in his distrust of legislators. []
  3. The subsidized cost of dual enrollment flipped overnight from the community college to the local school district. []
  4. That harm can be direct (the vacuuming of current resources for a project) and indirect (the long-term commitment of an institution to a white elephant legacy of a legislator… or a president/chancellor). []
  5. Recreational/all-student program expenditures should be segregated from interscholastic spending for this analysis. []
  6. Again, this entry is supposed to be practical, not ideal. []
  7. Yes, this notion of “graceful degradation” is borrowed from the language of cascading style sheets in HTML. []
  8. With a tutorial model of doctoral education, some institutional support needs to go towards common requirements for mentorship. []
  9. For a number of reasons, you should not ask a faculty to generate such a closure plan unless it were a universal requirement. I wish that program closure was not seen as a stain on faculty careers, but this entry is supposed to be practical, not utopian. []