February 7, 2012

Cutting Costs in Higher Education

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In an opinion piece published in The Huffington Post this week, President David Skorton implored state governments to stabilize, and ultimately increase, public funding for higher education. According to Skorton, this is one of the ways that universities can continue to be affordable for low-income families. Though Skorton is right to call on state governments, especially New York State’s, to increase funding to higher education, it is unrealistic to rely on legislators to allocate more money to the system to make tuition affordable. Instead, higher education must look internally to cut costs and reduce its dependency on tuition rather than wait for the government to step in.

Skorton’s opinion piece comes on the heels of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he called on universities to lower tuition costs or risk losing federal funding. Skorton wrote that the President’s plan should be tailored to fit individual circumstances and that there is no “one-size-fits-all model,” that the federal government can impose. While Skorton did say higher education should reduce its operating costs and work to make the system more efficient, he understated the importance of cost-cutting relative to increasing government support.

Recently, it has been impossible to rely on state and local governments to maintain steady levels of support for education. New York State funding to Cornell, for example, has only recently recovered from a downward trend. In 2011-12, New York State cut the funding for Cornell’s contract colleges by 11.38 percent, while this year, New York State cut the budget for contract colleges by 2.33 percent. These actions have shown that when the state government needs money, it has been more than willing to cut funding for higher education. This caused, at least in part, increases in tuition, as the University is forced to rely on students to pick up the costs.

As Skorton has previously written, cutting costs is an important way in which colleges can remain affordable. In an opinion piece published in The Huffington Post in December, Skorton said that “no campus can be all things to all people.” To cut costs, universities must coordinate their programs with each other, minimize competition and streamline their administrations, he wrote. Universities, he says, should collaborate to provide instruction in less-popular fields, thus realizing economies of scale. We think these types of solutions are far preferable to waiting for state and federal aid to lower the burden on families. By focusing on the baseline cost of education, colleges and universities will be able to increase access to students, with or without the help of the government.

Skorton’s statement challenges the way that we think about Cornell’s motto. If no campus can be all things to all people, perhaps “Any Person … Any Study” is a contradiction in terms. Trying to fulfill a commitment to both accessibility and breadth remains a difficult task. However, universities like Cornell will not be able to live up to both ends of this motto by relying on federal and state funding alone.