Cutting College Costs

There was a recent article in the Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet detailing the enormous economic costs of this pandemic on public colleges.  Here are some thoughts on steps to ameliorate the damage.

*Here, in NJ, we have a superintendents’ pay cap in the public schools.   Though I think this was carried out in a draconian fashion, with the cap lower than many principals’ existing salaries, I think there is some merit, though, to this on the college level.  Public college president’s pay should be capped at $350,000 a year and no one at the college should make a dime more.  Right now, with incentives, the president of Rutgers, my state university, can earn $1.2 million a year.  The football coach, $5 million, with over $7 million for his coaching staff, use of a private jet or first-class travel, a car, country club membership, a clothing allowance, and on and on.  This is, frankly, obscene.  Certainly, this is not restricted to football.  The women’s basketball coach is scheduled to earn almost $1 million per year. 

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Let’s be Real

This is such a moving target that, by the time I complete this, circumstances that were in place when I began may very well be changed.  Having said that, it seems that many colleges have made the decision to open for the fall.  This could all change, of course, if governors decide that it is too dangerous.  Governors are generally like school superintendents making a decision whether to close school for weather or other reasons:  they wait for the first to jump, see the response, and then decide whether the alternative has worse potential consequences, both politically and actually.  

But let’s go with the assumption that at least some colleges will be open in the fall.  There seems to be a consensus building for a Mid-August to Thanksgiving semester with no breaks.  One has to assume this is to avoid a predicted late fall/early winter second wave of Covid-19.  The lack of breaks is also to limit the exposure to those outside the university.

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Back to the Future: The Affordable Education Act

In 2019, Bill Conley, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bucknell University noted in the Chronicle of Higher Education “the sharp rise in students aiming to attend lower-cost, high-profile public institutions.  “The handwriting was probably on the wall.”  The following month, Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University wrote that it was time to recognize “the elephant in the room” that “higher education has left its growth stage”

This was all before the pandemic, that was compared by Madeleine Rhyneer, a VP at an educational consulting firm, to the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.  “In such a market, victory belongs to nimble institutions that pivot quickly and boldly…for institutions unable or unwilling to make thorny choices, extinction will soon follow.”  In the same article, Boeckenstedt urges colleges to “consider students and their parents before you consider yourselves…Now might be the best time to think about eliminating archaic rules and processes that exist simply because no one has ever thought to change them, and to focus on how your students might benefit from changes.”

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A Wasted Opportunity

On April 21, Mitch Daniels, the President of Purdue University, announced plans to open the university in the fall fully. He noted in a television interview that week: “I don’t pretend to have a plan yet.” Five days later, Brown University President Christina Paxson wrote an oped in the NY Times entitled College Campuses Must Reopen in the Fall. Here’s How We Do It. My response, two weeks later in Washington Post’s, The Answer Sheet, was that this was folly. It was unrealistic, I wrote, to think that students would not engage in risky behavior and that the virus could be contained in such an environment. More and more colleges, including Brown, are now delaying and canceling live instruction and delaying bringing students back to campus.

The same is true of school districts. After New Jersey’s Department of Education laid out a 104-page document, The Road Back, on guidance for school’s safely reopening, David Aderhold, Superintendent of West Windsor-Plainsboro School District published, on June 28th, 451 Questions, Bless the Broken Road highlighting the logistical and financial hurdles to such an undertaking. The Superintendent of South Brunswick Schools, published an open letter on August 1st, wondering why we would consider opening schools before other indoor venues and government offices. He noted, “it is vital that the State of New Jersey recognizes that schools should not be the venue to “experiment” on whether we can safely open large-scale indoor environments.” This past week, Governor Murphy declared that schools may now open with fully remote instruction, and numerous districts have already announced plans to do so.

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A Nightmare

Billie Eilish sings, in Everything I Wanted:

I had a dream

I got everything I wanted

Not what you’d think

And if I’m being honest

It might’ve been a nightmare

To anyone who might care

Thought I could fly 

So I stepped off the Golden

Nobody cried

Nobody even noticed

I saw them standing right there

Kinda thought they might care

She captures what is being played out among those like her throughout the nation –– mostly young, privileged, female –– who are going through a mental health crisis of frightening proportions.

At a time when so many are dying or sick from Covid, when so many are food insecure and/or homeless (or soon to be so), when our very republic is at risk of being under attack from within, it is hard to be sympathetic about the angst of those born, as Creedence sang, with a silver spoon in hand.

I have spent most of my career as a guidance director at highly diverse schools in northeast New Jersey. These schools have large populations of high-achieving, generally wealthy students as well as large numbers of economically disadvantaged students. 

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A Missed Opportunity

Effective planning involves planning for three aspects: the best case scenario, the worst case scenario and the most likely scenario. This is not, though, the order in which resources should be dedicated. The most resources should be dedicated first to the most likely scenario, followed by the worst case and lastly the best case.

During this crisis, America’s colleges –– and to a large extent, all schools in America –– did exactly the opposite. Our colleges are filled with many of the world’s best scientists and thinkers. Their warnings echoed comments my heart surgeon provided about my aortic aneurysm: “We know two things for certain: it will definitely not get better, and it will definitely get worse.”

The most likely result of this pandemic for college students would be online or, at best, hybrid learning. Yet virtually all the planning and resources were dedicated to the best case scenarios, namely live instruction with a contained and controlled virus. 

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Interview with Dean of Admissions at Ivy U.

Most colleges, at this point, are choosing to go test-optional for the class of 2021 and are being flexible about allowing students from the class of 2020 to take a GAP year without losing their seat in the class.  There was a thread on a College Admission Facebook Group with the query:  “Who is up for a betting pool on which school is last to scurry off the rotting deck of a sinking ship?”.  This is referring to the last colleges that have decided to go test-optional for class of 2021, due to the inaccessibility of testing.

Here is how I would envision an interview with one of these admissions deans going:

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