On Aug. 15 Kansas University unveiled the first report the administration commissioned from an outside consulting group, Huron Consulting Group, on improving efficiency and lowering costs at the university, including the medical school. That report is now available on the KU website and proposes a variety of changes the university might make that would both improve university functions as well as save millions of dollars. Since its release the administration has made numerous presentations to faculty and staff and, presumably, will continue to do so.
The report is not unimpressive and contains a number of interesting proposals. During the past week I’ve spent some time looking at the report as well as discussing it with a number of colleagues. So far, I think that impressions are mixed. Some of the specific proposals make a great deal of sense; others, perhaps not. But what I did not see in the Huron report, perhaps because this was beyond the scope of the task assigned to it, was consideration of more radical changes that KU and KUMC might consider, changes that might save far more money and that might also have far more long-lasting effects.
Everyone familiar with the Regents university system in Kansas is well aware of several significant facts. First, there is considerable overlap in subjects taught and research done at the Regents universities. Second, the student population at several universities, including KU, has grown enormously in the past two decades, growth that has put a strain on the financial and physical resources of the universities experiencing such growth. While attempts have been made to establish a system of rational allocation of students among the universities and between the Regents system and the vocational and community colleges, these attempts have had limited success. I think that KU and all the Regents universities need to think in far broader terms than the Huron report. We need to think in terms of eliminating excessive duplication and find a way to ensure that students who should go to vocational schools or community colleges, at least for the first two years of their college careers do so with the option of easy transfer to the Regents universities if appropriate.
To be even more precise: I think that KU and K-State should seriously ask whether they are too big. Is the number of undergraduates, graduate and professional students rational? Would we, perhaps, be better off financially were we to reduce the size of some of our programs, either by combining overlapping programs, requiring some entering students to attend a community college or vocational school before coming to a university, or, even, deciding that Kansas cannot support a particular program or department in any of its universities.
As I understand university finances, the cost of educating students is not covered fully by tuition revenues and state funding. The actual cost of educating students is covered by these two sources, but also by gifts, endowment income, and external grants (in the case of graduate students). Thus, each additional student enrolled at a university actually puts additional strains on nontuition revenues, revenues that do not necessarily increase with enrollment increases. I would think, therefore, that a reduction in enrollment would help to relieve that financial strain, as well as mitigate space problems. Isn’t it worth thinking about this alternative?
I fully realize that any reduction in student population may well lead to workforce reductions. But I would hope that such reductions could be done with a minimum of pain through attrition, especially retirements. The bottom line for me is simple. The age of unchecked business expansion is generally over throughout the private sector in the U.S. perhaps; it is time to think about reducing university enrollments as well. That can mean improvements in the education we deliver to the students who do enroll, as well as reductions in the operating costs of universities, reductions that might result in slower tuition increases for those students as well.