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Jun 19, 2008

What is happening to public higher education?

As we are testing waters in various off-campus ventures, I get a sense that some rules of the game are changing. Mainly, it is the kinds of questions potential applicants are asking and the kinds of responses or non-responses we get from people. It is not a secret generally; see for example, Lloyd Armstrong's blog. Basically, higher education is entering the world of competition, something most of other industries have been operating in for a long time. We are not there yet. For example, our recent drop in enrollments did not get anyone worried about our job security, or the imminent bankruptcy. I remember from my days of working for a small company, it was a very different feeling. We knew that if this state contract is not awarded, or that client leaves us, we all lose our jobs, at any time. Or, compare this to American car manufacturers: SUV's and trucks are not selling, so they just closed down a lot of factories, and fired a lot of people. We are not there yet, and hopefully, not even close. But we are definitely on the road to operating in the same situation of competition.

Just a couple of examples: a school district we were trying to talk into opening an off-campus cohort in, invited us and another university to present on the same day. Or another example: a recently admitted student shares that he shopped around, and we won his business because we had someone on the phone to talk to. Our partner schools tell us: you are good, but another university pays more to cooperating teachers. And finally, we seem to be losing the enrollment race to CSU and CU, see the recent Tribune article by Chris Casey.

Of course, the situation is not dire yet; we will always have traditional students, even if in smaller droves; our education programs are first-rate, and we seem to be working on overdrive all the time. So, there is no real sense of losing business; not on personal level. However, I just think we and other similar universities are not ready for the world of competition, and it may come sooner and much more suddenly than we imagine.

We are not prepared because of the outdated organizational structures and culture. We are not flexible, we are slow to react, and we cannot count money. UNC, like any other university, has the commercial arm, the Extended Studies. ES is much more efficient simply because they have more organizational and financial flexibility. Ideally, the rest of the university should operate just like the Extended Studies, constantly monitoring revenues and expenses in each college, school, and individual program. While not every program has to break even, everyone's financial situation must be transparent. I really don't mind subsidizing another program, but I would like to be told about it, and to know that this is done for the good of the whole, not because no one is paying attention. Revenue streams must be traced to their originators, and the patter should have a right to use some of it to experiment, take risks, and invent new educational services.

A part of the problem is that there is a further division within the University, and an invisible wall separates the Academic Affairs and the Extended Studies. While legal rationale for this separation is clear (state funded versus cash funded), ideally, academic units, faculty and students don't have to know or care about the difference between the two. There is no justification for the absurd situation when our new growing Early Childhood program only costs us money, while our off-campus Postbac programs are the main source of our discretionary income. Those are both very good, and both require a lot of work, dedication, and creativity. Much of risk-taking is dampened by the perceived shortage of faculty, and incongruence of ES vs. on-campus policies and procedures. We are caught in the perpetual catch-22: we cannot grow, because we do not have faculty to grow; we do not have faculty, because we do not have funds to hire them. Almost all new initiatives are coming out of someone's hide, and those hides are not inexhaustible.

What would a business person do? Come up with a plan, and then borrow money or find an investor to make it happen. Then hire great people to work on it, and just get the project going. Use of credit is the life-line of all modern economy, and it was invented exactly to get out of the catch-22 situation. But of course, we are not allowed to do what everyone else is doing, because we are a university. We are not about money. Sometimes I think we are about the absence thereof.

Another example: at the end of the calendar year 2008, our School will have taught 51 credits of off-campus credit hours. That is an equivalent of two full-time instructors. However, we cannot hire two new instructors using Extended Studies funds, because such people would need to teach for ES only. But this simply won't work, because no one can teach all of these various courses; one need to be a specialist. We could hire someone on ES funds, but who would teach in both off-, and on-campus. What's the difference, after all? It would not have been cheaper; full-time faculty cost slightly more than either adjunct instruction or overloads to existing FT faculty. However, we can expect a full time faculty to work with us on curriculum, on new programs, take lead in developing new projects, serve of committees, write reports, etc.

There are other institutional barriers; I won't mention them all. It is probably too boring already. I am just worried about what is coming next. We might not see that bus closing in on us. As we can see, the economy experiences wide swings, and dramatic changes. Who knew five years ago people will be dumping their SUV's and your house would lose value? How do we know what the landscape of higher education will look like 5 years from now? Will there be enough for everyone? Which other players will enter the field and open their brick and mortar or virtual campuses next door? I think public universities like ours should start to transform themselves into more flexible organizations now while we still have time. There is other one legal mandate or a fiscal rule or another to stop us from changing. But then again, Colorado is a smaller state, with a smaller, friendlier government, and we can change all these rules if we really wanted. In 2006, Colorado ranked fifth in the nation on the "Best States for Business" rankings by Forbes. And I am confident we can do it, because we have the most educated and creative workforce among all industries. Another option is to wait and see.

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