As we enter yet another season of budget cutting at public universities, the issue of how to manage such budget restrictions is ever present. The most widespread approach of public university administrators is to call for across-the-board budget reductions of some uniform percent. After all, the only fair way to absorb budget cuts is to ask all divisions of the university to help by giving back funds, right? While some universities will change that formula a bit from one part of the university to another, there is little judgment exerted; just memos from provosts/presidents to cut the budget, without reducing the number of students who can be accommodated in the classes. When all this is done and the new budget year is in motion, the leadership will profess to the outside world that no student was hurt in this process.
Well that is nonsense!
Cuts almost always hurt, and they hurt students. For example, cuts will lead to larger class sizes. Larger classes lead to decreased learning in most cases (unless the class is not very good to begin with). Exams evolve from written to multiple guess (choice) under the pressure of increased class size. While students well versed in such testing may get better grades from such tests, it is the written exam that most clearly reveals what a student knows (and how well they can write). Students are not known personally to the professor, and therefore the needed teacher – student relationship cannot be established. In large classes it is nearly impossible to track how well individual students are learning except through the exams. Students fall behind or fall out and no one notices.
Cuts often reduce the availability of advising to students. Advising is crucial to most students in their goal of finishing their degree on time and in good standing. As the time that advisors can spend with students each semester decreases from perhaps twenty minutes down to five minutes, student performance and student completion suffers. Student debt increases as students pursue an inefficient, longer path to their degree without advisement.
Cuts in science education can lead to loss of practical laboratories in which students get hands-on experience in their discipline, building their understanding and empowering them with important skills. They graduate less competitive than their peers in seeking jobs.
Cuts can lead to loss of disciplinary seminars given by outside speakers in the humanities that are critical to the development of the students’ views of their discipline and the world about which they are learning.
The list goes on, but the one feature in common is that too large a portion of the cuts that universities make directly or indirectly hurt students. And in the university, students should be first! Cuts should not be across the board. When budget woes descend, a responsibility comes with it to eliminate weak programming and university structures that are not central to student success, before attacking students’ needs. University Faculty like to point to administrative bloat as the first place to cut. No doubt, there is opportunity there, but it is not large enough to solve the usual budget problems. Cuts are often made in the non-tenure faculty ranks, because those faculty members are the easiest to lay off, but that reduces the teaching power of the university, hurting students by decreasing the course offerings available.
Almost all athletic programs at public universities run at a loss. Often deficits run into the millions of dollars annually. These deficits are filled by student tuition and fee money, not by alumni giving. This is a choice that universities make with their budgets. Although capital budgets are usually separate from operating budgets, it is still true that increases in the physical infrastructure lead to increased stress on maintenance (and deferred maintenance) budgets, which often derive from state allocations in public universities. This indirectly reduces the funds that can be expended in support of undergraduate education.
Where else to look? All universities run a variety, sometimes a large variety, of programming that has little to do with education of the students. These are often favorite programs of individuals in the faculty, staff, and administrative ranks, and most have a budget. In times of great economic stress, such programming must be examined critically. Is it really worth spending the students’ tuition there, when the consequence is lowered quality for the students’ educational programs? When spending student tuition dollars, one should put students’ needs first.
Students’ needs should have the highest priority. That is what administrators should follow in times of economic stress. And then they should be honest: budget cuts almost always hurt students. It is not fair to the students to tell the public and legislators that all is well, when in fact it is not. Decreasing legislative support for public colleges and universities either decreases quality for students or increases their tuition (increasing their student debt), or both. These are not the outcomes we want for today’s college students. Students should be first!