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The Blog Beyond the Blue

Improving Productivity in Higher Education

For the ninth straight time since I’ve been President of Boise State, I appeared before the State Board of Education to request a tuition increase, this time 5.7% over last year’s tuition of $5,566 per semester, which the Board approved.   In the years I’ve appeared with my colleagues for the annual tuition-setting exercise, I cannot recall one university or college passing up the opportunity to request an increase.  It seems there is always a good reason for a tuition increase.

In good times when the State was funding higher education, we argued it wasn’t enough.  In bad times, we argued that we had to make up for the decline in state funding.  And in both good and bad times when enrollments were growing, we pointed to new students as the reason for our increase.

As far as Idaho is concerned, we could always argue, as we did yesterday, that Idaho’s public universities and college have one of the lowest tuition rates across the West and probably the nation.   So we’re playing catch up here in Idaho.   In fact, Boise State can claim the lowest tuition of Idaho’s universities after yesterday’s action.

Unfortunately for those who have grown accustomed to steadily climbing tuition in Idaho, our Board seems on the verge of shutting down this line of thinking.   As laypersons who come from sectors of the economy that must cut back on spending when the economy goes south and revenues decline, they are having difficulty with how we can ask for increases even when state funding is showing signs of recovery and we are experiencing flat enrollments.

I hope I had a good answer for their concerns yesterday—namely, that we are recovering from recent years of minimal appropriation growth for higher ed, holdbacks that have actually taken funding from our budget and, for Boise State at least, underfunding of the enrollment formula that hurt Boise State more than its sister institutions.

While that argument may work today, I do not think it works in years to come, especially since our enrollments are not growing as they were a few years ago.  The Board President issued a kind and gentle reminder today as the Board approved the increases that we cannot return next year and expect the same increases.

Last year one of our board members asked whether Idaho could afford three research universities, which was really a question about our productivity and the workload of our faculty.   I do think the time has come for higher education to re-evaluate workload policies and re-examine how and to what extent we can hold people accountable for results.  Governing boards in the future will challenge traditional work rules and the overwhelming impact they have on maintaining the status quo in the future and it makes far more sense for the university to address these issues rather than have it done for us in a much less informed fashion.

I know what some of my colleagues are thinking at this point.   Wait a minute, you’re the guy that had the vision of the metropolitan research university so now you tell us to get back in the classroom and give up those reduced teaching workloads that provide the time to do research.

It is true that I have overseen the growth of Boise State’s graduate and research program, but every plan for the future must be re-evaluated in light of the times.  My original vision for Boise State was before the explosion of subprime mortgages, before the global economic meltdown, before the amassing of unprecedented federal deficits thanks to wars and tax relief for those who didn’t need it.  In other words, I laid out my vision prior to the Great Recession from which this nation still has not recovered.  Now throw in the higher education bubble – the prediction that we are raising higher education pricing at such a fast and dangerous clip –  that we will discourage students from signing up, thereby leaving empty seats in empty buildings.

That may seem like a stretch at Boise State, which has enjoyed growing enrollments these last few years, but that is not the way things are looking lately.  Almost flat enrollment last year and predicted flat enrollment for this coming fall at Boise State and its sister institutions suggest to me that the higher education bubble may visit Idaho soon.

I hope I’m wrong about that, but rather than sit around and take our chances as the nation did with the subprime bubble, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start asking the tough questions about whether there is not a more productive way to educate our students.

Should Boise State abandon its mission and role as a metropolitan research university?  Absolutely not!  But we must be strategic about where we invest our money and our faculty’s time when it comes to expensive graduate programming and research.  And that certainly applies to our sister universities who have been around longer than we have and who have accumulated degrees and offerings that can no longer be justified by today’s standards.

The frustrations I heard expressed by the State Board yesterday are hardly new to me.   People outside of higher education simply do not understand why it is the last sector of the economy standing that is impervious to systemic change and improvement.  Times like these require new thinking about how we teach and how our students can learn.  It is time to roll up our sleeves and get it done.  If we fail, it will not be a pretty picture when Governors and state legislatures step in with harsher solutions than the ones I firmly believe we in higher education are capable of producing.

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