In mid-July, my colleague Ed Venit and I had the opportunity to present to more than 60 provosts at the APLU Council on Academic Affairs Summer Meeting.
The conference topics ranged widely—from President Obama’s proposed college rating system to competency-based approaches to education, predictive analytics, and community college transfers. The overarching themes, however, were student success and public accountability.
I’d like to share my top three takeaways.
1. To lower tuition levels and student debt, we must look beyond administrative cost cutting
I presented research from EAB’s Business Affairs Forum on efficiency and effectiveness audits by major consulting firms (for more information, read the full report). Our review of 21 engagements found that, on average, universities were able to reduce costs by just over 2% of operating expenditures through cuts to HR, finance, procurement, and IT.
That may not sound like much, but for large research universities this reached nearly $100M dollars in sustainable savings. However, savings did fall short of the 4% of operating expenditures that consultants identified as the “best case” scenario, typically because larger savings require larger staff cutbacks that most institutions were unwilling to make.
In a number of states, the legislature or board of regents mandated these cost cutting initiatives. During the discussion, provosts recognized that political pressure to cut administrative costs springs from concerns about affordability and student debt. Large cuts to administrative costs, however, do not typically translate into lower tuition levels, much less lower student debt, particularly in states that are cutting public investment in higher education. So while cutting administrative costs is worthwhile, it’s unlikely to satisfy legislatures looking to make college more affordable. Perhaps we should be focusing more directly on reducing costs to students.
2. Accountability metrics are likely to have negative (though unintended) consequences
Every APLU provost is committed to public accountability. They believe strongly in their land grant mission, but many are concerned about the potential impact of President Obama’s proposed college rating system. The president’s plan (a draft of which is due to be released this fall) would create metrics for access, affordability, and outcomes—and ultimately would link institutional performance to levels of Title IV student aid.
A key problem is that institutions serving historically disadvantaged populations (typically measured by the percentage of students eligible for Pell grants) tend to have poor outcomes (as measured by six year degree completion rates). There was some consensus among meeting attendees that a form of risk-adjusted graduation rate or a “value-added” measure that accounts for student preparedness would be essential but is not currently part of the Obama proposal. In fact, there’s risk that the new system could reduce funding to universities serving the neediest populations.
3. We still have a lot to learn about what drives student success
Student success remains the top priority, particularly for APLU institutions. Ed Venit presented the latest findings from SSC, covering how course grades can help predict future performance, the impact of bottleneck courses, and how to diagnose problem majors.
While we’ve learned a great deal about how to place students in the right majors, we also know that most students who drop out leave in good academic standing. Universities are still trying to understand the relative importance of different risk factors—particularly non-cognitive factors such as socio-economic status, finances, cultural fit, or grit.
So What’s Next?
Ed described to attendees SSC’s efforts to understand which information would be most helpful for students. The crowd also had ideas of their own and proposed a student success version of the “fitbit,” or a personal device to help students track their performance and warn them if any number of variables indicated increased risk.
Have ideas of your own? Share them with us by emailing [email protected]