• April 17, 2014

Hard Times Require Better Planning and More Online Offerings, Speakers Tell Public-University Leaders

The recession's impacts are far from over for public universities, most of which have not done enough to test and improve their budgets. And online learning needs to become a larger part of the solution to maintaining academic quality and student access amid dwindling state contributions.

Those themes were part of the tough-love message delivered here by speakers at the annual meeting of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. For example, John R. Curry, managing director of the Huron Consulting Group, said most public-university leaders have clung to worn-out myths about campus strengths rather than rolling up their sleeves to "repurpose" budget priorities.

"We like our stories more than the truth," said Mr. Curry, a former executive vice president at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And the financial challenge is daunting. He said tax revenue is flat in most states, which face soaring health-care and pension liabilities.

"State debts and municipal debts are very, very serious," said Mr. Curry. "We will see a few states fail."

Yet strategic financial planning remains weak at many public universities, Mr. Curry said. Plans often don't move money toward priorities and away from other academic programs.

"A strategic plan isn't strategic unless something goes and something grows," he said.

Many universities also fail to have long-range planning models that test assumptions. For example, Mr. Curry said an institution might determine that it has cash on hand for new software, but fail to factor in costs for maintenance, updates, and staff training.

A more sophisticated approach, said Mr. Curry, involves a "relentless incrementalism" to budget planning. That means questioning the viability of goals like making a leap in national rankings and research grants, or building a new student fitness center. He said universities need to ask what matters most and how to get there.

"The facts can liberate you in ways you don't know. But the first wave of liberation will hurt," Mr. Curry said.

The recession taught much of higher education hard lessons about the value of liquidity and having enough cash on hand to make quick financial decisions. Going forward, Mr. Curry said, university planners should conduct multiyear forecasts of balance sheets and be willing to consider and even "play with" risk and volatility.

"The crisis you prepare for probably won't be the one that happens," he said. "But you'll be better off for testing hypotheses."

Trying an Online Solution

The University of California is testing its approach to online learning. And the pilot program, which will enroll approximately 5,000 undergraduates in high-demand courses next year, has already drawn heated criticism from faculty members.

The ambitious project's most prominent advocate, Christopher Edley Jr., dean of Berkeley's law school, spoke at a session here. He was joined by William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who talked about Maryland's broad distance-education efforts, and Candace Thille, who leads Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative, which is an industry leader in developing online courses.

Mr. Edley said California's dire finances and the system's long commitment to educating middle- and lower-income students are the impetus for finding a way to incorporate more online classes.

"It's abundantly clear that the bricks-and-mortar model is unsustainable if we want to preserve our mission," he said.

He used sobering numbers to bolster his case. The system faces a budget gap over the next decade of at least $4.7-billion in its projected expenses on instruction, meaning costs related to educating students, as opposed to administrative or student-services expenditures.

If the pilot program succeeds, he said, it could grow into larger-scale efforts that could generate revenue for the cash-starved system. Those might include offering courses, or maybe even degrees, to qualified students the 10 campuses might otherwise turn away, which could be a boon for both students and the university's coffers.

For example, he said it would cost the university $50-million to serve 25,000 new students online. But that would generate $180-million in net revenue each year. That amount would be the equivalent of the annual payout from a $4.5-billion endowment, and it mirrors the system's instructional budget gap.

Many professors won't go for the online push, Mr. Edley acknowledged, saying that it's a tough transition for some to go from the traditional "sage on the stage" teaching model to the "guide on the side" approach. But he said most faculty members wouldn't have to make that move.

Some further migration to distance learning is inevitable, said Mr. Edley, even at the most selective of public universities. And for California, it might be the key to staying "excellent without becoming exclusionary."


1. hms3683 - November 16, 2010 at 09:04 am

The transition from sage-on-the-stage (SOR)to guide-on-the-side (GOTS) now appears to be the theoretical underpinning of online learning. Just a few years ago, this same transition was known as constructivism. In the 90s. there was a movement to pull constructivism into the brick and mortar settings of conventional universities. The movement was endorsed by leading education departments where research pointed to the fruitfullness of this approach. The research, as may have been anticipated, was conducted on a convenience sample comprised mainly of freshman education majors at research universities. As a result, what we know of the GOTS approach is that it works for students with the following characteristics:
* selectively admitted to a program
* respectful of academic work
* goal-oriented
* high problem-solving abilities
* adequate math abilities
* high reading habituation
* good writing skills

Where this characteristic list represents the target student population, the research provides good reason to let constructivism be the underlying theoretical foundation for curricular choices. Where the target student population is not described by this list, the choice of an underlying theoretical foundation is not supported by the research. GOTS has a place in colleges of education and graduate schools. Meanwhile, SOTS isn't being practiced in very many settings in any pure kind of form. Gagne proposed that there were nine required events of learning, of which presentation of stimulus material is only one. SOTS, confined to presentation only, would be doomed to fail. But when the classroom lecture is perceived as one event out of nine, learning is as likely, or more likely, to occur than in a GOTS program limited to guidance only. Providing guidance is also only one of the other eight events. Whether in a distance setting or in a classroom, the act of providing one ninth of the events needed for learning will be education that fails. Both forms can be made to carry all nine events. But please don't confuse online with constructivism. And along the way, look at providing all events of instruction before concluding that an institution can generate 180 million dollars revenue on every 50 million dollars invested.

2. walkerst - November 16, 2010 at 11:18 am

Looking to online education as a panacea isn't going to work. Online education offers cost savings in many ways. For example, you don't need to build more buildings or find larger space (and the heating, lighting, etc. that these require) to add more students to an online course. But teaching online is much, much more work than teaching in a traditional in-person lecture format - and not because people aren't familiar with technology. Sure, some faculty are reluctant to teach online because they aren't comfortable with technology - but this is an excessive generalization. At my institution, we have over 1000 online course sites using Blackboard, Sakai, and other software. Faculty aren't reluctant to teach online because they aren't comfortable with technology - this only applies to some, and not even most. I know, because I'm in charge of academic technology and work with them. But they are reluctant to teach online because it is so darn much more work, and it is not rewarded or recognized as being fundamentally different.

As well, students in general are more and more ill-prepared for college these days. Now we expect them to be able to learn without ever meeting with faculty? I agree with the first commentator - unless the students are relatively well-prepared already, and meet the criteria he lists (in which case they would be good students anyway), they won't do well online, and retention will be a serious issue. There are issues that need to be addressed long before students ever even apply to college, or come to our doors. If they aren't prepared, they will not succeed, and once they get here, we can't do everything they need to rectify long-standing issues with things like basic reading comprehension and writing skills (some students I've seen have arrived at college barely literate or worse), very poor study habits or a complete inability to concentrate, etc. All of these are things they should have learned before they even got to high school, let alone graduated and applied to college. Yes, many students are wonderful - and those students will often do well. But for students on the borderline, at risk of dropping out, online courses are no panacea. They will fit their schedules better - but that's all. Don't get me wrong - online courses can be wonderful. The best course I ever took in my long academic career was delivered online, as well as in person (not a hybrid - you had the choice of modes). But it worries me when online education is held up as a panacea for all sorts of ills it really is ill-suited to address.

3. beulahd - November 16, 2010 at 01:31 pm

At my institution, on-line courses are limited to 25 students, as well they should be. I am at a loss to understand how one faculty member teaching 25 on-line students can be more cost effective than one faculty member teaching 100 (or more) in-class students. Even if the faculty member is a per course instructor, he or she could teach significantly more students in a classroom than on line. The buildings are there; the heating and cooling must be done for those in them. Thus, it seems to me that on-line courses can only be cost effective once classrooms are full. What am I missing in this discussion?

4. archman - November 16, 2010 at 02:00 pm

The big secret to online courses being "more productive" is that schools normally charge a LOT MORE for a student to enroll in one.

5. arrive2__net - November 16, 2010 at 09:51 pm

$180 Million in "Net Revenue" divided by 25,000 new students is $7200 per student. That is a lot of money. The intent of this plan appears to be to subsidize the f2f courses with the revenue from the online courses. Online can be run for a net profit versus f2f, so indeed competition from the private sector could become a factor as the Sloan report suggests (http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/enrollment-in-online-courses-increases-at-the-highest-rate-ever/28204).

Under this plan, will the profs course load remain the same? Even if a course is limited to 25 students, the prof could be teaching 4-5 or more courses, so the prof could actually be working with more than 100 students in the same term. I wonder how a prof's expected course-workload works now. Surely those 100+ student classes weigh more than a 15 student class.

Bernard Schuster

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