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How to Thrive in the Face of Budget Cuts: Broadening Access to Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | How to Thrive in the Face of Budget Cuts: Broadening Access to Higher Education
Funding cuts to Alaska’s public higher education system are requiring university leaders to find alternative ways to generate revenue.

Public postsecondary institutions are finding creative ways to overcome state funding cuts, while still managing to expand access. In this interview, Cathy Sandeen discusses on the implications of these funding realities in Alaska and reflects on how higher education institutions can learn to work within these constraints.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How comfortable do academic leaders at public institutions need to be with the idea of significant budget cuts?

Cathy Sandeen (CS):It is a fact of life in U.S. public higher education: State contribution toward the cost of education is declining. As a higher education leader, you have to be able to accept, adapt and come up with good ideas for how you can respond, in order to maintain and fulfill the mission of the university. It is a big part of the job.

Evo: Why are funding cuts to public colleges and universities so common?

CS: States have other expenses that they’re obliged to pay—like Medicaid, infrastructure improvements, corrections, and K-12—which were not as large a budget component in the 1960s and 1970s when the American public higher education system expanded. Unfortunately, the higher education portion of the budget is typically discretionary, which means it is not protected by law or regulation. Therefore, states turn to their higher education appropriations when funding is needed elsewhere.

Evo: A number of studies speak to the public benefit of an educated community. How important is this public-good discourse to protecting public higher education funding?

CS: Making a case for the broad importance of higher education is essential and, as an industry, we have not done a great job of that. This unfortunately contributes to the public perception that education isn’t important to the general public and that it is not a funding priority. There are a lot of positive impacts of higher education completion, from increased income levels and reduced crime rates to improved health and child-rearing outcomes.

That said, the cost of higher education has gone up dramatically for students and families, and the opportunities to fund education are much more challenging to students, feeding some of the negative perception. People have to ask themselves, on a personal level, whether the investment is worthwhile, whether they’ll be able to repay any loans they might take to afford their education. In many instances, that’s not the case.

As an industry, we can do a better job at helping students and families make good financial decisions when they’re deciding what to pursue, how to pursue it, and where to pursue their postsecondary education.

Evo: The University of Alaska system is facing significant cuts. How will you generate additional revenue to make up for these shortfalls?

CS: In Alaska, like in many states and also provinces in Canada, there is a certain component of the population that has some college course completion but no degree. By recruiting those individuals— either directly or through their employers, like the Arizona State University-Starbucks model—we’ll offer a pathway for them to complete degrees and credentials. Employers would then reimburse their employees who go into those programs. This is one way of bringing new segments of students into traditional degree programs.

If the institution has research capacity, going after additional research funding can help support overhead costs of the university. It also helps support faculty and staff salary. This requires an investment in the research infrastructure, office of research administration or sponsored projects. Although you need to staff up in order to find those opportunities and prepare the proposals, this can be a significant revenue stream for an institution, especially if they have that research capacity. So can contract services for applied research for companies and government agencies in the local region or state.

Then, of course, we talk about fee-based continuing and professional education (CPE). In Alaska, many employers send their employees down to the Lower 48 to complete these sorts of programs. We have the capacity right here to offer CPE in our universities, but it hasn’t been built up yet. It’s an initiative that we’ve targeted for the future.

The other way to generate additional revenue is through development, fundraising and working with donors who have a passion for our mission.

The long and the short of it is that public university leaders need to diversify funding beyond what come from the state.

Evo: What does it take to grow the capacity of a CE division to become the central and first choice for working professionals in a state?

CS: We formed a taskforce on continuing education and professional development, with an eye on creating a central division within the university that would be focused on the non-degree market. We have some very successful programs scattered across our various academic units, but if we bring those together, we can leverage them further and do even more.

What this means in terms of setting up the capacity and the infrastructure, is hiring a director with specific expertise in higher-level, non-degree, professional and continuing education. We’re not talking about lower-level, mandatory continuing education. There’s a lot of people who are doing that and it’s a very commodity-based market. We plan to move up the food chain, so to speak, into more sophisticated professional development. We’re going to be targeting regional and state opportunities.

Within that infrastructure we would also develop policies whereby the academic units would participate in the creation of programs. They will be teaching—or at the very least approving the instructors that we would hire to teach—these courses and programs. They will approve the curriculum, but in a very rapid, just-in-time manner. After all, PCE programming doesn’t move at the pace of a typical university program development cycle. They also will share in the net revenue that comes from programs they participate in .

Success in the CE space takes a completely different model than your typical degree-based programs. It takes new policies and procedures and the right people who manage these programs and market them aggressively.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the reality of public universities having to deal with significant budgetary challenges, and the role of CE as part of a broader revenue-generation strategy designed to overcome those obstacles?

CS: Many states are seeing better days in terms of public funding. I’m not sure if Alaska is on the tail-end of the downturn or if we’re foreshadowing a new wave of reductions in public higher education in the United States.

Public postsecondary leaders across the United States have to be constantly vigilant, and hone their skills to be more financially disciplined and able to work within various constraints.

There is absolutely a need to always look for alternative revenue streams that building on your mission and your capacities. The whole field of non-degree professional and continuing education is a big part of that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.