The Challenges We Face and How to Address Them: Responses to President Scarborough
In his May 15 address to the Cleveland City Club President Scott Scarborough identified specific challenges facing The University of Akron and higher education in general. He offered “re-branding” as Ohio’s Polytechnic University as the solution to these challenges, suggesting that “doing nothing” would be the riskiest course of action. Are these problems as real as he portrayed them, and is re-branding indeed the answer?
President Scarborough asserted that colleges are closing at an unprecedented rate, and that drastic steps must be taken to make sure that UA is not among them. The national trend, however, is toward more colleges and universities, not fewer. Between 1970 and 2000, the number of colleges and universities nationwide grew by nearly 80%, with another 10% added in the twenty-first century (Source: National Center for Education Statistics). The high-profile closing of a few small, private, under-endowed colleges like Sweetbriar tells us nothing about the future of large public research universities like The University of Akron. These are the challenges the president has described, along with our responses.
Universities are like hospitals. First, President Scarborough attempted to draw an analogy between public universities and what is happening to medical clinics and hospitals. In northeast Ohio, for example, more and more medical facilities are becoming part of the Cleveland Clinic. This is a false analogy to what is happening in higher education. No university is absorbing other universities, and the hospitals and medical facilities involved are still in business, even if under new management.
Enrollment has declined. Secondly, he pointed out that our enrollments have been declining in the last few years. Ohio’s demographics have changed, and there are fewer 18-year-old high school graduates, the traditional age to start college. UA, however, has never been a school just for traditional students. Only 53% of our students are 18-22, a figure well below the national average and below the numbers at Kent State and Youngstown State (Source: Collegefactual.com).
The president is correct in pointing out that UA has seen a decline in incoming freshmen. This was not unexpected, though the administration’s budgeting process failed to account for long-predicted declines. At least part of the most recent decline in numbers of incoming freshmen is due to the actions of the University of Akron’s administration. Just last spring, in a widely-publicized move, the administration proposed closing 55 programs. More than 500 letters were sent to incoming freshmen warning them that their potential majors might no longer exist. In the end, the best and most popular programs were not terminated, but freshmen enrollment dropped anyway, likely due both to the letters and to an incorrect perception that much of the university might be shutting down.
There’s an even more obvious reason for the decline in enrollment: UA chose to accept fewer students. Three years ago the university began its Pathways to Academic Success program. Under-prepared students were encouraged to start at a local community college, rather than investing their time and money in a four-year university program where, statistically, their chances of failure were very high. The goal was to improve retention rate, as has happened, and to foster the perception of UA as a rigorous, high-quality school, leading potentially to more and better qualified applicants in the long run. Not surprisingly, the total number of new freshmen decreased in the short run, by roughly the same proportion as had been considered seriously under-prepared. Ironically, the recently launched “GenEdCore” program of low-cost General Education courses is designed to attract back from regional community colleges the very students UA has been sending away, with the goal of enrolling them in our four-year programs.
Reductions in State Support. Third, the president pointed to shrinking state appropriations as a challenge, which it certainly is, and one that all public universities nationwide are facing. What is most important is not the total dollars from the state (now less than a quarter of UA’s operating budget) but rather how the university’s money is spent. Other universities, including the ones the administration hopes to emulate, face exactly the same financial issues.
The University of Akron spends more money on new hires of administrators and staff than on classroom teachers. There are now twice as many administrators/staff per student as there are professors. New vice presidents are routinely hired at five times the salary of a new assistant professor. The university has spent heavily on campus infrastructure, including an expensive, little-used, stadium for a money-losing football team and far more dormitory space than needed for our student population. Spending on Division-I sports (including coaches and training facilities) has ballooned in the last decade with absolutely no positive return on investment.
Addressing the Challenges
The president has decided that re-branding provides the best chance for continued survival, if not UA’s only hope. There are alternatives.
Acknowledge Shifting Demographics. As the number of traditionally aged (18 year old) college students declines, it makes sense to fall back on one of UA’s strengths: our ability to serve nontraditional students. More mature students are the best potential demographic from which UA may draw in order to increase enrollment. Ohio has 1.3 million adults who have completed some college work but do not yet possess a degree. Of these 130,000 have completed at least two years of college in just the last dozen years, making them more likely to finish a degree program if given an opportunity (Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center). Another important demographic from which UA can draw is military veterans. UA already has more students on the GI Bill (931) than Kent (754), Cleveland State (564), or Youngstown State (424).
These figures suggest that, rather than spending money on re-branding, the university would best serve the community by investing its resources in programs that will attract more of the non-traditional students in the region, the ones we already serve well. Additional programs aimed at veterans and perhaps a revival of the Evening College UA once offered, designed for working adults, will attract many more students than a changed nameplate.
Focus on Our Core Mission. In tight economic times, the university would be much better positioned to serve the Akron community by focusing on its core mission of teaching and research and by shifting its investments from administration and money-losing sports programs to faculty and classroom instruction. Salary and benefits of tenure-stream faculty now account for only 12% of the university’s operating budget. The number of such faculty has shrunk steadily for at least five years. Dozens more faculty are retiring this summer with no plans in place to replace them.
Students enroll and prosper because of excellent teaching by full-time teachers who are committed to the university. For the past 50 years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has asked incoming freshmen the factors that were “very important” in helping them decide where to enroll. Tops on the most recent survey -- picked by 70% of freshmen -- was that “the college has a very good academic reputation.” It goes without saying that the academic reputation of any university depends first and foremost on the quality of its faculty and the perception that a university will continue to invest in classroom education and research.
At The University of Akron, only 46% of classroom teachers are full-time. The majority are underpaid part-time adjuncts, many of whom teach at multiple universities to try to earn a barely livable wage. In contrast, at the best-known public tech schools, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech--the institutions President Scarborough uses as exemplars of “great” public universities-- between 83% and 87% of the faculty are full-time. Labeling the university a “tech” school will not alone elevate our status. The University of Akron needs full time faculty, not mere slogans and more administrators.
Neglecting Our Academic Mission is the Riskiest Path
What are the real challenges facing the university, and will repositioning UA as “Ohio’s Polytechnic University” do anything to address them? The disappearance of universities is an imaginary fear; changing demographics and tight finances are very real concerns. We need a strategy of investment in classroom education.
The new brand by itself is unlikely to do anything to attract students who might otherwise not have considered UA. The university administration, asserting proprietary interest despite the expenditure of public monies, has refused to disclose market data that they claim show evidence that a branding strategy may be successful. The reality is that no one is going to confuse Akron with MIT. The University of Wisconsin-Stout, which re-branded itself “Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University” eight years ago, is still among the smallest universities in the Wisconsin system, with just over 9000 students. Purdue’s re-branding of its College of Technology as the Purdue Polytechnic Institute does not include any of its engineering programs, and in fact, it seems more similar to our College of Applied Science and Technology.
Roughly 11,000 signatures on an on-line petition (http://tiny.cc/vctyyx) opposing “Ohio Polytechnic,” scathing posts to the university’s social media sites, and negative letters to the editor of the Akron Beacon Journal suggest that the re-branding will decrease, not increase, enrollments. Investment in improved opportunities for adults and veterans to complete their college degrees will do far more to increase enrollments.
The best response to tight finances is to put the university’s money where it will serve the university’s mission most effectively. The University of Akron must disinvest in administration and big-money losing sports programs and invest in full-time and tenure-track faculty. Research consistently shows that over-reliance on poorly compensated adjunct faculty is negatively associated with student outcomes (http://www.aft.org/highered/resources/student-success/related-research).
Hiring more full-time faculty is an investment that can only improve the student experience, will provide students the high-quality education for which they pay dearly, and increase retention rates and overall enrollments.
To become a great public institution The University of Akron must emulate the most successful universities: It must invest in educational substance, not slogans and marketing strategies. The faculty of UA remain committed to providing the best possible educational opportunities for our students and the community. The administration must now make a concerted effort to equal that commitment.
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