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Belt-tightening goes on – and on: ACE report offers ten-year retrospective – American Council on Education

Realizing that the budgetary woes colleges and universities have suffered the past decade may be permanent, higher education officials are coming up with more substantive strategies to deal with the long-range crisis, according to an annual report.

The report by the American Council on Education (ACE), “Campus Trends, 1996,” found that “daunting financial challenges and a changing environment over the past decade have forced the nation’s higher education institutions to become more focused, re-examine their missions, and set new priorities.”

While most colleges and universities reported slight increases in their 1995-96 budgets compared to the previous year, some two-thirds of all public colleges and universities receive less state financial support than they did ten years ago. Many are balancing the difference with private assistance, with more than 80 percent reporting more support from local business and industry. Such support has included donated equipment, course offerings for employees, scholarships, loans and economic development partnerships.

“None of the results surprised me,” said Edward J. Liston, president of the Community College of Rhode Island who served on the Campus Trends Advisory Committee. “The whole notion of the fact of enrollment increases over the past 10 years coupled with the almost complete dismantling of state support…we really have just had to do a strong management job to keep the ship afloat and maintain access.”

The study, based on survey responses from senior administrators at 403 two-year and four-year public and private institutions and weighted statistically to reflect all of higher education, includes a 10-year retrospective on trends observed by ACE.

Only one-third of respondents felt student financial aid offerings were adequate and 21 percent reported improved academic support. Institutions have also hired more adjunct faculty to save money.

Serving more students with less state support is only part of the picture, according to Elaine El Khawas, ACE’s vice president for policy analysis and research who wrote the report with research analyst Linda Knopp.

“Colleges and universities experienced a financial squeeze,” El Khawas said. “They are dealing with students who are older, more often attending part-time and more diverse. Each [change] translates into difficult challenges for educational institutions.”

What have all these changing circumstances done to the institutions? In the 1980s when funding was tightening, colleges “hunkered down and held their breath to wait it out,” El Khawas said. “The result of ten years of changes has been that colleges are operating differently and changing the way they do things.”

As a result, administrators have reported what they call a “rightsizing” of programs and services, greater scrutiny of the quality and relevance of academic offerings and increased energy in developing partnerships and other sources of funding.

Many colleges have steered away from trying to be “all things to all people,” El Khawas said.

“There is a special dilemma in that it is central to their mission to be all things to their community…but they are paying attention to the bottom line financially,” she said. “They are going to have to be more tough-minded within that role.”

In response, many institutions have begun making changes to adapt to the streamlined environment, according to the report.

RELATED ARTICLE: The report also found that since 1985-86:

* Nearly two-thirds of all public institutions receive less state financial support than they did ten years ago.

* Six ten institutions now have a more diversified financial base.

* Only 40 percent of administrators gave strong ratings to the overall financial condition of their institutions this year, down from 48 percent seven years ago.

* Nearly one-quarter of all public colleges and universities described their financial condition as “fair” or “poor.”

* About 80 percent of institutions increased their enrollment over the last decade. About 40 percent increased their enrollment in 1996.

* Eight in ten institutions collaborate more extensively with other colleges and universities than they did ten years ago. Most also reported greater competition with other institutions, both for students and for funding.

RELATED ARTICLE: The report says that:

* For half of all institutions, increased attention to teaching and learning ranked among their most significant program changes in the last decade.

* Most institutions more closely review their academic programs than they did ten years ago.

* Increased use of technology has become a major focus. However, only 29 percent gave strong ratings to their ability to keep up with the latest technological advances.

* About 20 percent of institutions have a smaller faculty today than they did a year ago. Twenty-three percent expect to decrease the size of their faculty over the next five years.

* Both public and independent institutions have about the same tenure proportions as they had in 1988.

* One-quarter of institutions have full-time faculty positions that are not on the tenure track. Such positions make up about 15 percent of faculty at four-year institutions.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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