Stop using students as ATMs

The University is sapping educational costs to achieve its top-three goal. Look no further than CLA.

by Bruce Braun and Teri Caraway

Look behind the curtain of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs flashy PR campaign and youâÄôll find a disgruntled student body. Tuition and debt loads keep growing, classes are increasingly crowded and students cannot get into the courses they need to graduate.
When they do, they find harried instructors, many of whom are contingent faculty teaching multiple classes for little pay. Little wonder that Forbes MagazineâÄôs 2010 ranking of colleges and universities from the studentsâÄô point of view placed Minnesota at 418th.
Why are students getting such a raw deal? Ironically, a root cause may be the University administrationâÄôs goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world. The administrationâÄôs strategies include shifting revenue away from undergraduate instruction to activities that yield large federal grants and patentable products. And while the administration cares about undergraduates, it concentrates on metrics that are important in rankings, metrics that do not necessarily positively affect the cost and quality of education.  The College of Liberal Arts, which serves the largest population of undergraduates, illustrates these dynamics.
CLAâÄôs operations depend primarily on tuition. In fiscal year 2010, tuition composed 65 percent of its revenue and the state appropriation only 23 percent. One might expect that CLA could weather the storm relatively well, given that the increase in its tuition revenue should offset the decrease in state funding. But that is not how the University works. Central administration assesses taxes, called âÄúcost pools,âÄù on all colleges, many of which are calculated based on the number of students. In fiscal year 2010, CLA expended more than half of its tuition dollars âÄî $159.7 million âÄî on cost pools, totaling $83.2 million. Some of these cost pools are for common goods that students use, like libraries. Cost pools also fund scholarships low-income students need as tuition rises. But the dirty secret is that the cost pools milk CLA âÄî and other teaching-intensive colleges âÄî to fund other priorities.
As its finances are squeezed ever harder, CLA has cut instructional budgets. Dozens of faculty positions remain unfilled. Departments have laid off staff and reduced the number of graduate students. Consequently, fewer faculty members teach fewer courses to more students with less support. Since the remaining faculty and TAs can only grade so many papers, enrollments must be capped, shutting students out of the courses they need.
While the administration raises tuition and fees and spends less on instruction, it seeks to strengthen indicators that are important in college rankings. Symptomatic of this endeavor is the focus on 4-year graduation rates. Given that all credits over 13 are free, students who max out on allowable credits will save money and graduate faster.
The problem is that students often work more than 20 or 30 hours per week to avoid going deeper into debt. Most people cannot work so many hours and handle 18 credits competently. The financial and institutional pressure on students to graduate âÄúon timeâÄù compels them to stretch themselves too thin, which compromises the quality of their education.  Despite their efforts, graduates of this campus are left with one of the highest debt burdens in the country in 2008, averaging approximately $24,000 for undergraduates.
The research mission and the restoration of state funding are vital to the future of higher education in Minnesota. But we would also benefit from a campus-wide discussion of the UniversityâÄôs priorities. How long will we let the University administration use students as ATMs in its pursuit of national rankings?

Bruce Braun and Teri Caraway are associate professors in CLA and members of Faculty for the Renewal of Public Education. Their opinion does not represent the institutional stance of the University. Please send comments to [email protected].