Fiscally profligate state colleges need to face the music

(’76 Contributor) According to a Denver Post story on Nov. 22, “The reduced stimulus money means that the general fund appropriation for higher education will have to increase to $555 million, the same amount the state provided in 2005-06 and the point below which the state can’t cut funding and still receive stimulus funds.” Which should remind us of some pithy phrases reflecting the common sense that the American people have learned from experience—not books in gilded classrooms at expensive public colleges and universities.

“It’s time to face the music,” is one of those phrases as is “Fish or cut bait” meaning “are you going just to sit there or are you going to start fishing?” Another favorite is “A stitch in time saves nine,” which I attribute to Ben Franklin’s Almanac. A Google search reveals that the originator of that phrase was first recorded in Thomas Fuller’s Gnomologia, Adagies and Proverbs, Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, 1732. Another favorite of mine is “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

I could come up with more of these phrases, but it IS time to face the music. Colorado higher education is poorly organized, too expensive for its own good, outfitted with accouterments we can’t afford and costing more—not less—every year. Raising donations for a state-run institution goes only so far to close the budget gap. And raising tuition—even if only for wealthy out of state students—defeats the purpose of a “public” education. A “public” education should provide an education at costs the general public—meaning the lower middle class and the poorest—can afford. So something has to be done to reduce operating costs.

What can be done? In essays published at the Yorktown Patriot and in private communication with at least two presidents of state universities in Colorado and numerous members of the Colorado state legislature, I have argued that Colorado higher education needs a workout and radical reforms, as follows:

1. Start by commissioning a Core Curriculum of general education for credit college level courses delivered via the Internet at cost to Junior and Senior high school students. Enable them to earn up to two years of college credits while in high school and give them preferred admission to any four year public college or university in Colorado.

2. Four years in to this effort when the first high school students who earn college credits online begin to arrive as full Sophomores, close admissions at four year colleges to new Freshmen and begin to grow our four year colleges into Senior colleges. In fifteen years, every four year college will only offer Junior and Senior level courses.

3. Place all Faculty on a two tier compensation program. Lower compensation for those with tenure and lesser compensation for the non-tenured. Grant no more tenure.

4. Place all Faculty on term contracts with Bench Marks at 3, 5, 10 and 15 years that must be met if their contracts are renewed.

5. Commence annual outcome based audits that evaluate which programs are self-supporting and which programs exist at the sufferance of taxpayers or are supported by other programs or research grants rather than tuition. Shut down those programs not deemed absolutely necessary for a college education.

6. Apply the principle “every boat on its own bottom” to the graduate divisions of all postgraduate institutions. If a program cannot manage and support itself, shut it down. Those that can support themselves should be free to manage their own programs without central administration interference, but each will contribute 60% of its income to the general fund.

7. Make a public commitment, call it the “Education Contract for Colorado,” to lower tuition costs at public institutions by 5% annually for the next fifteen years.

These steps will enable Colorado to provide a college education for every citizen qualified for college level work. Though these steps will radically change the face of Colorado higher education, remember that there are an equal number of non-public institutions licensed to operate in Colorado. They will be challenged to meet market demand for football, cheerleading squads, basketball teams, climbing walls, gourmet food courts and provide those niceties to those willing to pay for them. All the others will hunker down and start lowering their tuition costs in order to compete with the state university system. Many more Internet programs will become available and Colorado’s very good Liberal Arts colleges will continue to offer a superb classical education to those who want an education as opposed to a degree.

Here’s the bottom line: Colorado’s public education costs are out of control, the leadership of state colleges and universities and their Faculty are living in the past, and Coloradans have no more money to support the costly and unnecessary ways that Colorado state colleges and universities do business. It’s time to face the music.

Richard J. Bishirjian, Ph.D. is President of Yorktown University, an online, for-profit institution of higher education, on whose Yorktown Patriot blog this article first appeared.

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