Sunday, December 14, 2008

An interesting debate

This column by Richard Vedder concerning efficient spending in Georgia's higher education system was one of the more interesting reads I've had in while. I think some of his suggestions have merit, some need more discussion and some don't add up for me.

For instance, Vedder makes valid points regarding boosting enrollment at technical schools to save money, noting that roughly 40 percent of students who enroll in undergraduate studies don't actually graduate. Shifting those students to two-year colleges where they can acquire the necessary skills to be a member of a competitive workforce is a logical suggestion.

As is his argument to increase the opportunities for junior and senior high school students to earn concurrent credit for college, thus limiting their time in undergraduate studies and streamlining their efforts to reach graduate school.

However, Vedder loses me on his latter three proposals. He contends that administrative staffs need to be reduced and, in theory, I don't disagree. The goal of college, rightfully, is to educate its studies and advance research and learning opportunities, but to fulfill that mission a variety of support positions are essential to its success. And, seeing how private fundraising is becoming more and more of a crucial component of the health and viability of our public universities, it's not plausible to make broad swipes to many administrative functions.

To be fair, I somewhat have a dog in this fight. I've worked at two different academic units at the University of Georgia in a public relations/fundraising capacity, and both of those functions are essential to the success. From my experiences, most of the functions require the necessary staff and resources to execute that mission. I'm not arguing that efficiency can't be achieved or that positions can't be streamlined, but I don't.

Furthermore, I think Vedder's commentary on this particular topic is somewhat naive. And by that I mean that - as I noted earlier - he's right in saying that universities and colleges have an 'institutional mission of instruction and research.' However, there's a larger philosophical issue at work here that needs more exploration than one bullet point in one column in that said mission has, to some extent, seen the necessity of positive publicity and sufficient private fundraising become fixed to it.

I briefly worked at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences in their development office, and they've currently got 10 people dedicated to their fundraising efforts ... and I'd argue for the necessity of each one of those positions given the size of the college and the imperativeness of raising revenue (and how said revenue flows right back to research and learning opportunities).

Regarding the other two points Vedder raises - transparency in state activities and private partners providing some student-based services - I have similar mixed feelings. Well, not so much on the former as I think transparency is good, and my contention is that a lot of which he requests actually is available (so I could concede a streamlining approach).

The latter, however, I have a hard time agreeing with. For starters, as I've argued before, there is no reason to assume that the private sector can provide certain services more efficiently or at a higher quality aside from the fact that it seems to be widely accepted by most conservative policymakers. I'm not saying that such efficiency or quality doesn't happen, but there's little data to suggest that it happens as regularly or frequently as its proponents claim it does (and beginning your assertion with 'as a rule' doesn't mean you've offered sufficient evidence to back up your claim).

What would happen if, say, the University of Georgia got out of the food service industry is that a significantly greater cost would be thrust upon the students and their families. The same would happen with regard to housing seeing how it's less expensive for students to live in a dorm compared to an apartment (though, for understandable lifestyle reasons, most typically opt for the latter at some point during their time at UGA).

It's an interesting column, and they kind that's needed to generate pragmatic discussion about these issues. I don't necessarily agree with Vedder, but it's good that he's putting these issues out there.


Blogger Nicki said...

On Vedder's suggestions:

1. Align tuition charges more closely with demand and supply conditions.

We already do this to some extent, but we don't allow individual schools to charge what would actually make them profitable or what the market will bear. So I think it's important to note that this part of the proposal will probably result in a pretty severe spike in tuition at UGA, Georgia Tech, etc.

Also, differential tuition is great for the schools -- it's not very good for the studnts, particularly those who are truly needy. Begging the question: is it public education if the public can't afford it?

Increase the proportion of students attending technical and community colleges.

GREAT suggestion. But a) standards for transferring classes vary widely in the event that students want to switch to a comprehensive research University and b) This suggestion, as well as many of the others, suggests that the role of education is vocational training, and it is not necessarily, particularly in the comprehensive and liberal arts colleges. c)Some thought needs to be put beyond class transfers into more intentionally diverting students to 2-year colleges. Say, for example, by making it clear what standards apply for transfer and possibly even setting aside a transfer track so that students at two-year schools who plan to transfer can have a peer cohort (which improves their experience), receive advising tailored to their situations, and even perhaps have expectations and advantages (such as being given seniority at their new schools equivalent to their time in the system rather than time in the specific school) clearly spelled out in a way that makes the option attractive rather than ad hoc.

However, it's interesting that the author wants to shift students from 4-year schools to two-year schools, suggesting that he is primarily interested in students who can qualify for HOPE. I'd rather see the focus placed on getting students in general into tech school. So we wouldn't save quite as much money, but we'd educate more Georgians.

Promote good high school students taking college courses for concurrent credit.

Yep. Well, sorta.It bears noting that all the schools in the Georgia system take APs, college credit courses, IBs, and CLEPs -- and CLEPs are offered at UGA orientation. But taking high school courses for credit...not sure about that. It would depend for me on which courses we're talking about, how standards are established, and how many "good" students aren't already qualifying for college credit due to the existing options. Though there's no doubt in my mind that exempting as many students as possible from core requirements would increase success with the HOPE.

Encourage schools to get out of nonacademic activities.

Um, no. The reasons universities provide other services is because they are not providing the same service available on the private market. In general, when a University provides a service they do so to higher standards and with concern for stability of the work population and guidance/support for students. And it also, in general, makes sense not to treat students like generic consumers because of their emotional maturity. Also, the author is again thinking that the role of the university is vocational training while discounting the role of entertainment, particularly of the high-quality variety provided by universities, in education.

Reduce administrative staff.

Ok. Agreed. But strategically. And those positions aren't generally frivolous -- but we can do with fewer of them. Also, personally, I'd like to see UGA take a very careful look at its advisement system -- it's very inefficient.

Provide more consumer information on college costs and performance.

What does this mean? I don't like it. Again, it suggests vocational training is the purpose, and it is not necessarily.

9:03 AM  

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