Let's Develop Solutions

Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Tired of the rhetoric? Want to take a stab at cutting costs in Wisconsin public higher education yourself-- or even try increasing productivity?

The Lumina Foundation has supported the development of an amazing interactive tool that helps you do just that.

Here's one result I generated:

Let's say we need to close the 2025 budget gap for Wisconsin public research universities to maintain current spending per FTE student. We can do that by increasing student/faculty ratio from 13:1 to 17:1. Period. Gap closed. No increases in tuition or state & local revenues necessary. And research suggests that such an increase will come at no significant cost to degree completion rates. If you want to suggest it will hurt instructional quality, you'll need to provide hard causal evidence to support that case-- I'd love to see it--email it to me!

Better yet, let's first increase faculty salaries per FTE to the 75th percentile (which means an increase of about $1,000 from a starting point of about $6,300) and do the same for student support services too. Let's further commit to no tuition increases, and assume no increase in state or local revenues either. We can do ALL that and still have no budget gap if we increase student/faculty ratio from 13:1 to 19:1.

What is required to increase student/faculty ratio? Obviously we either enroll more students, retain more students, or reduce the size of the faculty. Here are the two main challenges:

(1) There is a widely held belief that student/faculty ratio is THE measure of quality in higher education, despite an overwhelming dearth of evidence to support that belief. It's no coincidence that rankings systems rely so heavily on that measure--and that all this talk of being competitive seems to set aside any possible changes to the student/faculty ratio. In fact, since the ratio is actually interpreted to mean "commitment to teaching" that effectively precludes any real re-consideration, lest we come across as not committed to education! But come on-- what evidence is there that the number of faculty allocated to students is the best indicator of commitment? How about the number of highly-trained faculty? The amount of professional development offered? The valuation of teaching in tenure decisions? This reeks of a system that responds to the needs of faculty more than students (for more, see my next point). There are alternative ways to measure quality.

(2) Faculty. Faculty at research universities tend to strive for as little student interaction as possible. Yep, I said it. There are some exceptions, but generally we spend our time vying for smaller classes and less advising. Could we learn to teach bigger classes and do it well? Could we be required to do so at least semi-regularly? Could the advising load for undergrads be spread across a wider range of faculty (including those in departments that don't teach undergrads)? Sure. But you'll face resistance.

So let's stop pretending that there's only one way to skin this cat. We don't have to break from UW System, hike tuition, and/or become semi-private in order to solve our fiscal crisis. We have to have tough conversations about the best ways to deliver higher education in the 21st Century. Sure, that's a tall order-- but it's one that the smart communities of Wisconsin's public universities can no doubt handle.