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Amid Rampant Budget Cutting, U.S. Colleges Anticipate Tough Academic Year

When California State University, Dominguez Hills opened its doors for fall classes, the Los Angeles-area school did so under a cloud of uncertainty about its future.

Sharing the budget cutting pain with other publicly supported schools across the state and nation, Cal State Dominguez Hills is operating with less money, some 600 fewer students than it wanted, a smaller administrative and teaching staff and fewer classes. By late summer, it also had no budget for the full year, as the state continued to wrestle with the economy and a final state budget for the 2010-2011 academic year.

“We’re working at trying to be strategic in the middle of a storm,” says Dr. Sue Borrego, vice president of enrollment and student affairs at Cal State Dominguez Hills, one of 23 schools in the Cal State system. “We continue to plan for worst-case scenarios.”

The situation at Dominguez Hills reflects the trauma of changes on the nation’s higher education landscape, as schools across the nation search for ways to function effectively on less and adapt to a slower and weaker than expected national economic recovery.

“(The economy is) certainly having an impact on public universities, period, and the impact on (historically Black colleges and universities) is harder because they are more vulnerable to economic change given their largely need-based population and smaller endowments,” says Dr. Lorenzo Esters, vice president of the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Universities, a division of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities (APLU).  There are no quick fixes on the horizon, Esters adds, noting that a survey of APLU member colleges last year found 70 percent of them used federal stimulus dollars as a “short-term” measure to close gaps in their budgets.

“The real question is how do we continue to serve low-income, nontraditional and minority people, given the economic realities most public institutions are facing today. The future looks uncertain, particularly for those populations of students,” says Esters, adding that the prolonged economic slump represents a “setback” in the higher education momentum of the last decade.

Doing Business Differently

Since the economic downturn began in late 2008, more schools have slashed budgets, payrolls and services while trying to protect their core academic programs.

Today, as the economic downturn persists, they are doing more of the same and coming up with ways to keep higher education a realistic goal for the masses.

To help keep its enrollment steady and minimize the number of students dropping out because of economic hardship, Howard University, one of the nation’s flagship HBCUs, boosted funding this year for its need-based scholarships to $10 million from $8.6 million for the 2009-2010 school year, the first in which Howard began awarding need-based assistance. Other schools, like Philander Smith College, have taken similar actions to support enrollment. The school boosted financial aid by 10 percent to $1.5 million, President Walter Kimbrough says.

To keep its ships steady, Howard says it has also slashed $30 million in expenses over the past 12 months through a buyout plan for more than 300 employees and a reorganization of its back-shop operations, especially purchasing. “We’ve moved to a business model more about effectiveness and efficiency and away from redundant operations,” says Robert M. Tarola, Howard’s chief financial officer and treasurer.

In Nebraska, Little Priest Tribal College is exploring partnerships with other schools in the state as a means of creating new learning opportunities for students and shaving operating costs. “It’s a terrible situation,” Little Priest President Paul Robertson says of the state of the economy, “but may create some opportunities.”

Dominguez Hills and four other Cal State System schools have partnered with textbook makers to allow thousands of students taking certain courses to purchase licenses to access textbooks online at a discount of 65 percent off the publisher’s recommended list price. Still, the Cal State System is cutting 40,000 students systemwide this year and telling its schools to brace for tougher times.

In anticipation of tougher sledding ahead, Dominguez Hills is working more closely with area community colleges to ensure those institutions’ students take more transferrable courses. It has reached articulation agreements with 10 community colleges in the past year.

Borrego, a 25-year higher education veteran, describes this fall as “the most difficult fall I’ve had in all my years in higher education.” Other colleagues across the nation echo her sentiments.

In addition to boosting tuition by more than $400 per student for this school year, North Carolina Central University, one of the University of North Carolina System schools, has imposed limits on class sizes and required all faculty to teach a full load of four classes.

“We’ve had to do the same or more with less,” says Yolanda Banks Deaver, interim vice chancellor for administration and finance at NCCU, noting that all schools in the UNC System have cut their budgets. NCCU cut its budget for the 2010-2011 school year by $3.5 million, or about 4 percent. That’s on top of a $3 million cut the previous year. “We may have a worse cut for 2011-2012,” Deaver says.

John Kaulfus, associate dean of students at the University of Texas San Antonio and incoming president of the Texas Association of College and University Student Personnel Administrators, says most public colleges in Texas have escaped the kinds of budget torture he hears of in other states. Still, he sees tough times coming. Tuition has already been on a steady climb at Texas schools to increase revenue, he says. Many schools have also imposed hiring freezes to cut costs.

“We’ve really had to tighten our belts,” Kaulfus says of the more than 50 schools in his association. “The theme running through the association’s upcoming convention this fall,” he says, “is how to do more with less. A lot of schools are treading water.”

Tougher Times Ahead

For sure there are exceptions to the overall national trend.

Many schools, from Virginia Union University to Philander Smith to the University of Texas at San Antonio and Little Priest, report scattered upticks, especially in enrollment.

“Enrollment is up, despite the downturn,” says Robertson, noting enrollment at Little Priest this fall has surged to 140 from 100 students.

Diné College, the higher education institution of the Navajo Nation, has also seen a surge in enrollment to 2,178 students from about 1,900—the highest enrollment in a decade, says school spokesman Ed McComb. He says many tribal colleges “are struggling” and Diné finds itself “in a unique, favorable circumstance.”

“We’re seeing an increase in enrollment. We need more facilities, more instructors. We’re sound (and have) stable funding at the moment,” says McComb, noting the school is heavily dependent upon federal funds.

College officials are nearly unanimous in declaring that core academic programs are the last thing to go on the chopping block. Nonclassroom instructional spending, operating expenses, part-time teachers, vacant slots, travel, professional dues, compensation, discretionary spending—all are up for grabs before cutting academic programs, they say. NCCU, Deaver notes, is doing “whatever we have to do to protect retention and graduation.”

Still, the overall picture is bleak for hundreds of schools, says Dr. Robert Sevier, senior vice president for strategy at Stamats, the Iowa higher education consulting firm. States are cutting higher education funding by 30 percent or more, he says. Meanwhile, many private colleges with no “brand name” have alarmingly narrow income bases, such as colleges dependent on tuition. “It’s like an investment portfolio with only one stock,” he says.

“Almost all the implications are bad for students,” says Sevier, who sees schools cutting back on class offerings, advising and counseling and other student services. “There’s just a huge rollover, and students are the ones getting rolled over. As (former higher education leader Dr. Robert C.) Dickeson says ‘most colleges can’t afford to be what they’ve become.’”

Sevier says the long-term prospects for students are not as promising as in the past, as most economists forecast a jobless economic recovery, more families can’t afford college, and homes that were used as equity bases for college funds are “underwater.”

“Something’s got to give,” says Sevier. “All the decisions that are left are really tough ones.”  

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