Cutting The Cost Of College

by MooshiMooshi

Everyone loves to discuss the high costs of university education, and everyone seems to have an opinion as to how to get those costs down. This article looks in some depth at the effort to deal with significant funding cuts at U Wisconsin Eau Claire, which is a classic directional state U, and one with a pretty good reputation. The son of one of my best friends went there, and had a lot of good things to say.

There are some points of interest in this article. First of all, the funding cuts forced the administration to look closely at some of their processes, which really made no sense in some cases. Layers of administrative approvals to get catering? That is the kind of thing that just adds to everyone’s workload. As I have noted before, a lot of times universities end up with lots of bureaucracy, added costs, and added workload (usually dumped on faculty and lower level administrators) because there are no real chains of command. Everyone in the various administrative offices are all doing their own thing. The one-stop student services office is also a great idea. I have never understood why universities make students run from office to office to get things done. So there is a silver lining to these cuts – forcing the school to weed out and streamline offices and processes.

However, the centralized advising is a huge mistake in my opinion. And each advisor will have 300 students? In a school with a 30% 4 year graduation rate? Seriously? My department is actually trying to wrest advising away from the central advising process, largely because we think it will improve retention. The centralized advisors make so many mistakes, mistakes that actually cause students to have to spend more time here.

And of course they will end up with fewer course sections, which will also make it harder for students to get finished on time.

It is interesting that they used alums to help identify inefficiencies, instead of hiring consultants. I assume the alums were volunteering their time? That is actually a really interesting idea – instead of hitting up alums for money, ask for time instead.

Struggling to Stay True to Wisconsin’s Ideals

As usual, the comments on the article are interesting too. Do you have anything to add? How would you approach drastic cuts at a school like this if you were the president?


65 thoughts on “Cutting The Cost Of College

  1. instead of hitting up alums for money, ask for time instead.

    Thus asking the deanlets and deanlings and assistant deanios to cede decision-making authority? Highly unlikely to happen.

  2. I think the university is probably hoping for money and time from their alumni.

    I generally think that cuts are not all bad, as most of the universities I’ve worked at have seemed overstaffed and it can obviously lead to better systems and procedures. The university I work for had an abysmal graduation rate for many years (about 30%) until they started using statistical analysis to target students who may be getting off track and now it’s up over 50%. It’s fascinating what they’ve been able to do with small amounts of money.

  3. The reduction in teaching staff is creating a ripple effect — class sizes will get larger and, for many courses, fewer sections will be taught. Fewer sections means students may have to compromise, taking a course at an undesired time or waiting a semester to enroll in a course. Most faculty at Eau Claire teach four classes a semester, and that will not increase after the cuts, Schmidt says. Eau Claire assembled a group to consider how such changes might affect the curriculum.

    So the faculty already have a four-and-four teaching load, and now they get more students. Will they still be subject to incredibly stupid requirements like “Every student in each class must write a minimum of 10 pages of material”? And then the parents will complain that the professors didn’t even grade the assignments! At a place like Eau Claire they won’t have a lot of TA’s. What a nightmare.

  4. I think asking alums is a good idea. They went through the processes, what seemed inefficient, what was duplicative, etc. A good consultant would be asking current students and alums for input, but sometimes going directly to them is faster and cheaper.

  5. Layers of administrative approvals to get catering?

    I have a question about that. A while back I was working for a subcontractor that insisted on meal receipts while the main contractor insisted on per diem. As the reports could only be approved by the client in the main contractor’s system – so, we had a problem.

    Now, the accounting department at the subcontractor fought tooth and nail against doing per diem. I imagine the reason they fought so hard was because of how many FTE’s they had dedicated to processing all those individual receipts.

    So, my question: Did the people doing the fighting know that they were just trying to defend their jobs against a massive business cases in favor of streamlining the process? Or, had they actually convinced themselves that what they were doing was important?

  6. To jump back onto Burning Man thread yesterday: My SIL went, got royally sunburned and incredibly dehydrated and sick, as did all people in her tent/area. She still claims to have “loved it”. Sounded incredibly unhygienic and gross to be, but as they say different strokes.

  7. Is your SIL into hallucinogens? That might help. My friend who goes every year takes his RV, which I think makes the whole deal more comfortable.

  8. I liked the article and I think the first round of cuts is well-done. You can almost always cut the first 5% off an old budget without affecting anything important. I’m most disturbed by the lack of course offerings.

    The more interesting question, from an economics perspective, is how much it costs to educate the nth graduate (the person least likely to benefit from a college education rather than military or vocational training) vs. how much value that person will receive. In my department at Land Grant U, it seemed like all the people who graduated had no problem choosing appropriate courses out of the catalog and signing up for them in sequence. Prerequisites were appropriate and well-defined. The attrition rate was at least 75% so all the people who had issues got shunted to another department. Classes were moderately large and TA’s or even more advanced undergraduates graded homework but professors (and maybe an occasional TA) graded exams. Depending on the incoming student population, a 30% graduation rate may be a feature, not a bug.

    It seems that we need to identify two tiers of “college” education. One for people who are getting their ticket stamped for a particular job (most people) and a few people who will think great things and want/need an excellent, interactive education. The second set of people still need to take foundational courses in statistics, organic chemistry, etc. that can be well-defined and might be well-suited to a MOOC or computerized approach. The sort of people who can’t pass statistics in a MOOC probably aren’t going to be using it for analyzing the results of their NIH study anyway.

    In most countries, they select a certain number of people to study a particular field upon entry to university and don’t allow less qualified people to enter. The Wisconsin school should reduce the number of people admitted to be commensurate with the courses it can offer.

  9. “At a similar, one-stop student advising center, each adviser will be tasked with mentoring some 300 students in an effort to increase the graduation rate.”

    Well, there’s an oxymoron.

    “Or, had they actually convinced themselves that what they were doing was important?”

    That. It’s visible vs. invisible costs. I can totally see the thinking: “we can’t possible trust people with a per diem — if we give them $X and don’t require them to document it, they’ll pad their bills and pocket the extra, and we’ll lose money! Our studies show that we are losing $2.96 per event, on average, and if you multiply that by X employees x Y events, that’s $378,000! We are saving almost a half-million dollars a year by demanding receipts!!”

    But, of course, the costs of all of those hours reviewing the receipts is invisible, because that’s just one part of each person’s job, so you hire more people to deal with the “increase in work demands” and never count that as the cost of your receipt system.

    I actually have a client now who reviews every single bill and asks for documentation for any entry that is over an hour (like “edited spreadsheets, 2.0” — response is “I’d like to see that spreadsheet, please”). And yet she is completely overworked and overwhelmed, and they just had to hire another lawyer to share the load. But, hey, she’s saving the company thousand of dollars a year in legal fees by catching “waste” and “inefficiency”!

  10. LfB,

    I agree 100%. One minor clarification:

    “we can’t possible trust people with a per diem — if we give them $X and don’t require them to document it, they’ll pad their bills and pocket the extra, and we’ll lose money!

    With per diem there is no padding. The per diem in Baltimore is $71 a day – you get that no matter how much you actually spend on M&IE.

  11. Rhett, any idea of what the per diem is in Houston and Tampa? Most meals there are eaten in “Gentleman’s Bars” which can be quite expensive,

  12. Yeah, Rhett, but the thinking goes that if we ask for actual receipts, some days will be (well) below $71, so we save money.

    The companies I have worked and traveled for all had the higher of per diem or actual. As long as actual was reasonable/explainable I got full reimbursement. Normally, though, I just took the per diem. Sometimes my actuals were more, sometimes less, but on average right around the guideline. Just easier.

    Where they should focus is whether the actual physical trip should be taken at all. Not on whether I spent $65 on actual receipts or just claim the $71 when I go see LfB.

  13. Provided you don’t eat, drink or dawdle $51 in Tampa can be okay.

    $71 in Houston, not so much. I’ll defer to Mad Dog on this one.

  14. some days will be (well) below $71, so we save money

    That’s certainly true. But, I often think there is something else as well. Some people are just ferociously opposed to the idea of someone getting away with something. So, while if you insist on receipts you’ll save on average $10/day per 100 employees x 4 days a week = $200k you’ll need $300k worth of FTEs to manage all the extra work. Most people would look at the numbers and say, “Let everyone have their $10/day.” But, there is a passionate subset that finds that idea abhorrent.

    Funny/sad side note, I was talking to a guy at the airport who said on of the accounting people at his office was put on a PIP because he kept rejecting expense reports for typos. The receipt said $38.66 and sales guy would put $38.69 and the accountant would reject it. They told him it didn’t make sense to bother the guy, his manager, waste your own time over $0.03. But, he just couldn’t let it go.

  15. The centralization/consolidation of services described in the article should have taken place long ago. How about different campuses centralizing common services so that they get discounts from using common vendors. I am guessing but don’t know for sure if I am thinking more from a point of view of a profit making entity whereas the university system is non profit.

  16. I am guessing but don’t know for sure if I am thinking more from a point of view of a profit making entity whereas the university system is non profit.

    In both cases you’re often dealing with the same problem:

    If you know a way to save your employer $10 million but the end result will be you getting laid off – you’re going to keep your mouth shut about it.

  17. Louise – I’d imagine, but don’t know for sure, that all the campuses would receive the “state government” pricing negotiated with major vendors. And, yes, some common services could be consolidated at a University-wide level to save money, also.

  18. I think a lot of university systems do use common vendors where applicable. I know in Georgia the whole system uses the same payroll, office supplies, travel agency, etc.

    I don’t have a problem with the 300 students per counselor thing. There’s probably a decent percentage that needs little help.

    This is a program that can be instituted at any directional state u and the more students that graduate within six years, the more money the university saves.

  19. Atlanta, I love that article. It’s essentially what yield engineers do for integrated circuits, applied to people.

  20. I had a government employer who provided a per diem, but it was not extravagent by any means. Our routine travel to the audit location Monday morning and back on Friday evening, with a few exceptions when we left Sunday night. We had to stay at contracted hotels, so we always picked La Quinta as they served breakfast. If we ate at cheaper/mid-range chains for lunch and dinner, we could have one nicer meal usually at a locally owned place during the trip. It was easy to do your travel voucher. Then they went to a max per meal (varied with breakfast being the cheapest) and you had to have receipts. The paperwork was awful – so if you had a $12.00 lunch max, but spent $12.31 you had to mark the overage column and explain it, even though you wouldn’t get reimbursed. Well, now the travel voucher took 2-3 times as long to process – filling out and reviewing. Also, morale dipped because of (1) the time, (2) your company credit card often came due before you received your travel payment, and (3) the limited flexibility – you could not “save” on one meal to “spend” it on another.

    After a couple of years they returned to the former system after an internal audit documented the cost of documentation and review.

  21. Help. I have been sent an email that says “you have been invited to edit a docs open document.” But when I open the document it says “you can view only” – no edits allowed.

    I am signed in with google. How do I edit this effin document? There is a place where I can send the creater a request to edit, and I’ve done that, but this is time sensitive, need to edit asap, and I don’t understand why the email says you’ve been invited to edit but document says you can view only.

    I am becoming flustered…

  22. Lark,
    The creator of the doc needs to change the settings. I have had this happen on several people using Google Docs. The permission settings are deceiving. Call the owner on the phone and get them to let you edit.

  23. Lark, The permissions is the key…going through the same thing with another committee…

  24. Lark – Are you sure it isn’t spam or a virus? I’ve been sent similar sounding google doc invites and the sender’s e-mail account had been hacked.

  25. Thanks all. It was a document from school, but others on the e-mail list were able to edit. Unclear why I couldn’t. I ended up just sending a separate e-mail and got the changes incorporated. All set now.

  26. off topic but asking here bc it has come up before. help for an adult with dyslexia for doing math? any helpful links you could share? TIA

    Rhode did you say you had dyslexia?

  27. Ugh, because of utter insanity at my college, plus the fact that our Internet service went out after a car hit a pole on our block, I missed my own topic!

  28. On the subject of reimbursement, we have to use the most appalling software ever – no one can figure it out. And then we only get 50% reimbursement anyway. So sometimes it just isn’t worth the pain. I think that is a way my university saves money.

  29. Most of our students need good advising, so the 300 students per advisor would be ludicrous. The big problem we have is that they tried to centralize advising, but the professional advisors make all kinds of mistakes because they don’t have good understanding of the more technical majors. So we are trying to pull advising back into the department. The mistakes were often appalling, costing students a year sometimes.

  30. OT. This is hypocritical, because I normally hate people who take any tragedy and say “omg, I know that place,” but re: the shooting this morning…OMG. That’s where we go every year. I was there last month. That’s the waterside marina development complex on the lake where you go for gas, where you eat pizza outside, get ice cream and fudge, play mini-golf at night…

  31. This is hypocritical, because I normally hate people who take any tragedy and say “omg, I know that place,”

    Well, I hope you’re it now! When the Aurora Theatre Shooting happened I had a fit, because I’m there pretty frequently.

  32. Rocky – maybe my annoyance has been reserved for those who seem too eager to try to make it about themselves, perhaps with what I’ve perceived as excessive drama. When that shooting happened at the mall in Columbia, MD (not too far from LfB) someone posted on FB “I had my sense of self shaken to the core…[because I would hang out at that mall sometimes in high school.”]

  33. The mystery of the postage due item has been solved. I took Finn’s advice and stuck the slip with the 65 cents in an envelope and left it in the mailbox yesterday. Apparently nobody swiped it before the mailman got it. As you would expect, it is very anticlimactic – it’s registration forms for a survey that my wife volunteered for.

  34. Well, Milo, don’t you think a need to personalize something is our way of dealing with something we don’t/can’t understand?

    I mean if someone is talking about cancer I find myself having to restraining myself from saying, “You want to talk about cancer? I know about cancer. It killed my wife.” But I try to shut up. I have no idea (happily and hopefully forever) what it is like to have cancer. But I think people try to bring themselves as close to a bad situation as possible, perhaps as a matter of empathy.

    As usual, I don’t know. Just a theory.

  35. Sandy Hook hit me very hard because I worked in that area for many years. My directional state u was nearby. The mom of one of the university students, and the daughter of one of the professors, were killed. Also, Adam Lanza attended classes there

  36. PTM – it’s hard to describe the difference between relating to a personal connection and attention seeking. I’ve never seen the latter on here, just on FB. But I was just trying to apologize prematurely for giving any impression of engaging in it.

  37. “U Wisconsin Eau Claire, which is a classic directional state U”

    Does Eau Claire translate to a direction?

  38. “the thinking goes that if we ask for actual receipts, some days will be (well) below $71, so we save money.”

    If I’m traveling and have a per diem for meals, I’m likely to eat at Subway. But if it’s based on actual cost, I’m much more likely to eat at a fancy restaurant.

  39. Jeez, I’m trying to round up people from high school for a little party for my erstwhile bff. It’s very odd leaving voicemails like “Hi, Martha! This is Rocky from 40 years ago. Want to come to a party at [nice restaurant] in Palo Alto? Hope all’s well with you!”

  40. “I assume the alums were volunteering their time? That is actually a really interesting idea – instead of hitting up alums for money, ask for time instead.”

    I’ve been hit up for both. I’ve served on some committees for my alma mater, most notable a curriculum review committee in advance of accreditation.

  41. Tee, hee. Finn, the question begs to be asked:

    What was it like graduating from an unaccredited college?

  42. I assume it was program accreditation, whichis different from university wide accreditation.

    We get some alums on an industrial advisory board, but mainly alums are hit for money. My alma maters have never asked me to volunteer, just to give money. I give money to the engineering school where I went to grad school

  43. They only ask the people with money to volunteer in an advisory capacity, with the knowledge that once one gets involved personally with their time, they then give more money.

  44. PTM,the accreditation review was well after I graduated. The college was still accredited when I graduated. I think.

  45. Mooshi, that’s exactly what I was on. My understanding was that a requirement for accreditation was that the board conduct a review of the department’s curriculum.

  46. change of topic question: I have to fly to Chicago. One of my flight options is Southwest to Midway. I have never flown Southwest. How is it? I heard they don’t assign seats. That sounds horrible. Is there a stampede for seats? And finally, is there any advantage to flying to Midway instead of O Hare?
    (BTW, I tend to be a JetBlue fan – lots of legroom and the sanity of boarding from the back. But the JetBlue flight times are inconvenient for this trip)

  47. @Moosh — I adore Southwest. You get assigned a boarding number, and when it’s time to board, you line up based on that number — basically, A 1-60 go first, then B 1-60, then C 1-60. So there’s no stampede, you just take your turn and pick the seat you want from whatever’s available when you get there. (Personally, I would buy EarlyBird — that gets you a seat number in front of those who don’t buy it, so you’re usually in the late As or low Bs and don’t get stuck in the middle or with no overhead bin space). My impression is that it is faster than the way the other airlines do it — I think maybe people have a sense of urgency to grab a seat, even though they really don’t need to, but they sure do manage to board more efficiently. I also like Midway, because the Orange Line on the L comes there, so you don’t have to deal with cabs or traffic if you don’t want to.

  48. If Midway is closer to your destination in Chicago then you should consider Southwest. My son flew that route many times on SW with very few problems. I think it’s worth paying the extra ($10?) to get priority boarding so you won’t get stuck with a middle seat. Or, alternately, be ready to pounce and get your boarding pass as soon as the 24-hour window opens. IME boarding is fine, not much different than other airlines.

  49. Speaking of Making Life Easier: we just used our Global Entry for the first time. OMG!!! Everyone should do this if you travel internationally.

    First, automatic Precheck — which, given the international departure line at Philly, saved us an hour. And of course that will continue for five years for all of our local travel.

    But the best was the return. No stupid form to fill out. You go to a kiosk — with no line — scan your passport, do fingerprints on a scanner, and check boxes about declaring. It prints out a receipt. You get your bags. You then go to the separate Global Entry exit line — which, again, has no one in it — hand over your receipt, and the guy says “have a nice day.” We were walking out of the airport literally 30 minutes after the plane pulled up to the gate. Worth every penny of the $100. At least till everyone else figures out what a good deal it is. :-)

    (If you have to declare, you do need to go to the red line. DH declared — he’d bought 3.5 bottles of scotch instead of the 2 allowed — but he walked over, the customs guy laughed at him and sent him on his way, and he was out even before we were).

  50. I wanted to sign up for Global Entry but it seemed like such a hassle – when I looked into it, the only places to do it were in Manhattan or JFK.

  51. I read a little on the Ashley Madison hack last night. Usually I just brush off things but twice now I while looking up for people’s addresses or something they mentioned I came across information on the net that could be classed as private. Is ignorance bliss or not – I don’t know.

  52. @Milo – I totally get it. I wasn’t commenting here yesterday because a) I was busy with work and used all my internet breaks to check the news, and b) because I was really freaked out and didn’t know what to say but couldn’t think about anything else. I didn’t know any of the victims personally, but there’s only 1 degree of separation. What freaks me out the most is that I could have been watching them live, but I just happen to watch a different channel that covers my end of the region better (IMHO). They haven’t said much about Adam Ward’s time at VT, but based on his age, I think he could have been a student when the 2007 shootings happened. I am just so tired of these incidents…and nothing ever changing to address the problem.

  53. Milo – I saw what the DC sniper shooting did to my mom psychologically. Coming just a year after 9/11 and her being already in her late 80s, she became so fearful after a person was shot a mile from her house on the same main drag where her apt was located, and the same day another at a gas station nearby (not her regular one, but it could have been- she still pumped her own gas) that she became housebound and her late life mental decline was accelerated. She of course wasn’t posting on FB or drawing attention to herself, and that is the behavior for which you were thoughtfully but unnecessarily apologizing in advance, but without a harmless forum in which to defuse, as it were, the fact that this happened right within her world she just internalized and magnified her fear.

  54. I always fly Southwest unless my meeting is near OHare. Definitely pay the $10 for better seating.
    FYI you can take the el from OHare to downtown as well–I never take cabs.

  55. Mooshi, we did the interviews for Global Entry at JFK. It was very quick; we were in/out in a few minutes. I think we stopped there on our way to the beach last summer.

  56. Yeah, but we would have to drive to JFK, what a pain. We have no reason to be there unless actually flying somewhere, which is not usually a great time to be doing paperwork

  57. I really don’t understand why they make it so inconvenient to enroll. When we had to do our Homeland Security background checks for international adoption, it was way easier – we just went to one of the larger towns in Westchester, to a government office, and did the stuff there (fingerprinting, filling out forms).

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