What’s in a number (or, trying to understand the minds of university administrators)

After seemingly retreating from obsessive micro-managing of student numbers, certain administrators at my university have recently returned to routinely flagging “low enrolling” sections term-by-term while now also pointing to numbers of majors when citing decisions about faculty lines and other forms of program support.

I, like most faculty I know, understand the need for sound financial management and also the value in periodically assessing faculty lines and the distribution of university resources. As part of that, I accept both that not all programs will be viewed equally by administrators, and that there may be a variety of bases for determining the value of programs. As faculty, you find ways to deal with administrative priorities in whatever way you can.

However, it is difficult to understand these kinds of judgments where the logic of administrative assessment and decision making cannot be followed or is not articulated to faculty. I can think of a few reasons why there might be an intense focus on “low enrollments” and “program size” on the part of administrators on my campus right now, but I don’t actually know which, if any, of these might be the correct answer to why the metrics that are being valorized are, in fact, being valorized.

To begin my guesses, the Oregon University System is being dissolved. The larger institutions, University of Oregon, Portland State and Oregon State, have already been freed to establish independent boards. For smaller campuses like mine future governance it still to be determined. Our president has submitted a proposal to the legislature for an independent board.

It is possible that the obsession with enrollment minutiae has to do with either demonstrating “strong management” to members of the legislature to bolster the case for independence or is more practically concerned with scraping up nickels and dimes from, particularly, reducing adjunct hires, but also from not renewing tenure track lines, in order to finance the prospective board.

Second, after growing from 4,889 in 2006 to 6,233 in 2010, enrollments at Western have essentially settled to around 6,100. It is possible that the concern with micro-enrollments is a reaction to this macro-level contraction and leveling off (my data is from the Fall enrollment reports to OUS). The idea being, I suppose, to rationalize course numbers to what appears to be the popping of an enrollment “bubble” since 2010.

Third, and similar to the first, there have been a number of personnel changes in upper-level administration in the last year, particularly on the academic side of the university. What may be happening here is an attempt to establish some kind of “hard” management style or administrative united front. We have a strong union and a tradition of faculty control over curriculum. Focusing in on term-by-term enrollments and number of majors could be a strategy to divide faculty in competition over students.

A fourth possibility is that the concerns here are not so much about the present, but are about laying groundwork for future hiring decisions, that is, if administrators are on the record now expressing concern about “low enrolling courses” and “small programs”, then later, when decisions are made about faculty lines and adjunct sections on the basis of these metrics, no one can claim ignorance regarding the criteria for allocating faculty resources.

To extend this speculation further, maybe the targeting of section enrollments and rumbling about numbers of majors are expressions of an un-articulated plan for re-shaping the university, one imagines around a few select professional, pre-professional, or simply “practical” programs with currently high enrollments, while gradually downsizing, by attrition, many of the traditional liberal arts and sciences to supporting roles, with no majors and only a few upper-division courses as deemed necessary for the full programs that do remain.

This last point seems the most likely, not just because it imparts a clear logic to the imperatives at work here, but also because it seems consistent with recent actions on hiring. However, as noted, nothing like this reasoning has been directly or clearly shared with faculty.

For me, and many of my faculty colleagues, one of the biggest sources of frustration in this process is not knowing why we have to engage in the exercise of cutting or defending all sub-twelve sections every term. Assuming that the goal, or, okay, let’s say, “outcome”, is one that faculty can at least sympathize with, I am sure that many, maybe most, would be willing to reassess our course schedules and make whatever practical adjustments we can to maximize enrollment each term.

But right now no one particularly understands why every section of every course is expected to meet the same enrollment threshold every term, regardless of program, purpose or enrollment history (I’ll just note here that there are sections of courses on the schedule that are routinely capped at less than twelve). There are, perhaps, vestigial OUS directives being responded to, but that hardly explains the current level of intensity over course enrollments (and I don’t think it explains the attention being paid to number of majors at all), expect, perhaps, as part of my first guess, where dutifully fulfilling system mandates, even as the system is being dismantled, will be looked at favorably in making the case for an independent board.

Of course, if I were in upper-level administration and I had a plan to change hiring practices to favor programs that met certain metrics for section enrollments and program size, or an even more radical plan for remaking the university around those numbers, I probably wouldn’t want to share that with faculty in a direct way either. That is, if the desired outcome is contraction of most of the academic programs at the university, I would not expect most faculty to embrace that outcome.

In an immediate political sense the unspoken rationale or rationales behind both the focus on section enrollments and numbers of majors is that, currently, for faculty to make even the most minor of curricular changes requires detailed explanations (“we must have a culture of evidence!”) and an assessment plan for determining if the stated purposes, excuse me, “outcomes”, are met.

Right now faculty have no idea what the administrative outcomes are, what goals are meant to be achieved, by imposing an enrollment threshold of twelve and insisting that majors be of a certain size, or how those outcomes are to be assessed (and, it should be noted, the exact number for size of major has not been articulated).

Without that information these imperatives seem arbitrary. It isn’t difficult to think of other ways of measuring departmental health or vitality or value – whatever term you like – besides section-by-section enrollments or number of majors. Why not total section enrollments? Why not student credit hours? Why not annual enrollments? At a small school like mine, why look at the departmental scale, why not Division or College? Why look at number of majors instead of student contact hours? Why employ the same measurements or standards for all departments when different departments serve different primary functions, e.g., there are departments that are primarily service departments and there are departments that primarily serve majors? Why is teaching majors more important than teaching in the core?p

My point isn’t that these would all be better measures than the ones being deployed. My point is that how you measure value or success should depend on your underlying purpose and not the other way around, that is, I don’t think what we do as faculty, or as a university community, should be driven by metrics that are selected prior to understanding what kind of a place we want the university to be. There is no prima facie or obvious value to section enrollments, or to twelve students, as opposed to any other number of students, or to numbers of majors. The fact that we don’t know what value is being ascribed to these measures is a far bigger problem for me right now than is the insistence that they be applied in the first place. It makes me wonder why these numbers are not being presented for discussion, but are simply being imposed.

Two thoughts on Oregon’s Pay It Forward tuition experiment

I am not entirely sure what I think about the Pay It Forward approach to tuition for public higher education in the U.S., but I do think that the Oregon legislature passing a bill to study the idea is a a welcome spark of creativity in the ongoing debate about costs and affordability.

At first look, I am drawn to the idea for its apparent progressiveness, but it is hard to say how well, or how progressively, Pay It Forward, as proposed here, would actually work in practice. If the proposed study is well crafted and executed, and a solid pilot is recommended and launched, there should be answers to these questions in the next couple of years and perhaps some meaningful action on at least college affordability as a result, whether in the form of Pay It Forward or some other approach that might emerge from the discussion being started here in Oregon.

However, I do have two more specific thoughts on the early debate over the idea.

First, I am singularly unpersuaded by one of the central arguments being made against the concept of Pay It Forward, namely, that the approach is either unfair to or a disincentive for students intending to, and who do, enter high-paying jobs or professions after college.

Sandy Baum, senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, sums up this argument in a Time Business article by Martha C. White, “‘It’s a real moral hazard problem,’ she says. ‘If you have no intention of doing anything other than staying home with your kids, this is great for you. If you think you’re going to be an investment banker, you’re going to think really hard,’ and might decide not to participate with ‘Pay It Forward’ or attend a state school.” At The Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann, calls this the, “engineer problem.”

Baum’s invocation of “moral hazard”, suggests that, on one level, this is an argument about the ethics and politics of “redistributive” social policies. Where one stands on this question depends on one’s political commitments and vision of a just society. Some people will insist on seeing Pay It Forward as a system that punishes the rich, who are, implicitly, hardworking, and rewards the poor, who are, implicitly, lazy. Comparing a stay-at-home spouse to an investment banker is a framing that seems deliberately designed to make this point.

Writing as a professor, I’m thrilled by the prospect of the odd student who is not fixated on what job they’ll get after graduation. Presumably, that individual is seeking a college degree to be a more fulfilled human being, citizen and member of society and not just because they’ve been told, repeatedly, that higher education is necessary to securing, “a good job.” If it takes a few investment bankers – or a few more university professors – to subsidize that person, fine by me, and, on balance, better for my classes.

More realistically, there are very few individuals who choose to go to college without some job or career intentions, and in that case, where everyone has a job and everyone is paying back into the system, identifying “takers” and “makers” becomes less clear. I think you have to look at his issue from a particularly abstract perspective to see much of a problem with Baum’s investment banker paying more, over time and in absolute terms, than, say, a teacher or home healthcare worker.

And if you do consider the principle here in abstraction, I think that you then also have to consider the broader question of value in relationship to different educational and employment choices, and not just how much someone ends up paying back to their college or university. Does Baum really think that the well-educated stay-at-home parent contributes less to society than the investment banker? (I’m not even asking for consideration to be given to the damage that actual investment bankers have done to other people’s livelihoods when using their educations solely for their own enrichment. Imagine an ethical banker, if you want).

The other side to this argument, Weissmann’s “engineer problem”, is not so much that Pay It Forward sets up a moral hazard, but rather that individuals with high-income aspirations simply won’t like the idea of ultimately paying more than those whose job goals or prospects are less lucrative. These feelings of unfairness or resentment will lead the engineers of the world to avoid Pay It Forward schools, leaving those institutions with a revenue problem.

Unlike the moral hazard question, the “engineer problem” is an empirical matter and until there is an actual trial of Pay It Forward no one will know if this problem is, in fact, a problem. That being said, I do think that arguments like these are rhetorically powerful for many Americans, but that, in practice, most people don’t actually base many of their important life decisions, like where to go to college, solely on calculations of whether their choices will result in them coming out economically “ahead” or “behind” other people.

Studies of the effect of tax rates on both households and businesses largely suggest that these play little to no role in individual choices regarding where to live or do business. That isn’t to say that there aren’t those who will decide to move, whether themselves or their business, because of perceptions of being unfairly taxed, but as Matthew Yglesias has noted recently, even in contexts where you might expect individuals to act as rational profit-maximizers, they often don’t, choosing instead to give greater weight to other values or outcomes.

While the ability to choose a college for reasons other than cost and affordability is substantially tied to class in the U.S., this is also an intensely personal choice for many students. Closeness to, or distance from, home, where one’s friends are, or are not, going, family ties to an institution, sports and geographic allegiances, quality of academic programs, appeal of campus life and activities, are some of the more obvious factors that can and do influence where an individual might go to college in addition to cost and how to pay. In other words, and by way of example, it is hard for me to imagine an aspiring engineer from a long line of engineers, all of whom attended Oregon State, turning their back on the family legacy simply because Pay It Forward leaves a bad taste in their mouth, which is how I understand the essence of the argument articulated by Baum and Weissmann.

I first learned about the Pay It Forward proposal in the Oregon legislature from Think out Loud on OPB and on that broadcast one of the arguments in favor turns the “engineer problem” on its head. The position here is that the status quo causes students to value earning potential over other considerations when choosing a program of study and looking at options for employment after college. The result is that many individuals end up majoring in fields about which they care little and entering into jobs that might pay well, but are not very fulfilling. More particularly, individuals are dissuaded from choosing jobs and professions in socially valuable, but lower paying, fields such as teaching and social work or, even, less remunerative specialities in otherwise higher paying areas like law and medicine.

In the absence of evidence one way or another, it is difficult to say whether the status quo’s “teacher problem” is greater than Pay It Forward’s “engineer problem”, but I do think it should be noted that the proposal under consideration is not classically progressive in that the tax that would be levied on post-college income will be flat, working out to 3% annually for individuals who finish their degrees in four years. This is clearly intended to make the system appear “fair” and to garner support across party and ideological lines, but it does make Pay It Forward less progressive than it could be if there were different tax rates for different income levels. I also think that this decision has implications for my second thought.

Pay It Forward is clearly aimed at addressing the problems of student debt and college affordability, but, in regards to U.S. public higher education at least, those issues are not isolated, but are the consequences of declining funding. Simply put, rising tuition and fees, and therefore student debt, are responses to state legislators cutting support to public institutions of higher education.

My sense here is that following a Pay It Forward model for tuition is probably an excellent idea where there is an adequate baseline of funding for services and the physical plant, but that where tuition dollars are being counted on to provide that baseline, the model turns risky. This sense is reflected in the recurring question of how to pay for the first generation of students, if and when Pay It Forward is adopted. In effect, state voters or legislators will have to be willing to provide funding to the public system at a level much higher than they have been willing in order to implement Pay It Forward. The question then becomes one of how serious everyone is about the potential for the model to bring down debt and make college more affordable. Maybe the Oregon study will reframe the funding issue in a way that gets the relevant individuals thinking about funding in a realistic and productive way or maybe members of the legislature who voted for the proposal are hoping that somehow the study will provide a magic key for solving all of OUS’ financial problems. It won’t, obviously.

Even if at the end of the study process in Oregon there is a consensus that Pay It Forward would reduce student debt and make college more affordable for more people it still seems likely that no one will have the will to address the problem of funding. In that case, the real shame won’t be the failure to implement Pay It Forward, but the confirmation that platitudes, and studies, are about as far as most people in positions of political and economic power are willing to go in support of higher education.