In 2020, college really hasn’t been all it’s cracked up to be. Students should be forgiven if they are paying an arm and a leg, racking up tens of thousands in debt and griping about their subpar experience. That’s because they’re right to complain.
“We sell the entire university experience to our students and their parents,” Regis University Associate Professor Rob Margesson observed. “They walk these students and their parents around, and they say, ‘Look at our beautiful dining hall, look at this modern dorm that we’re building.’ Now my kid’s locked in her room and can’t go to that beautiful dining hall because she might get COVID."
Margesson, a professor of communication whose daughter is a Regis student, is a self-described leftist and a good friend and radio guest going back to my time as a Regis student and campus radio host (2008-2011). He joined CU Regent-at-Large Heidi Ganahl, a conservative Republican, on my KNUS radio show for a meeting of the minds on higher ed during the pandemic, providing discounts to students and reining in administrative costs.
Despite steep political differences, Margesson and Ganahl found much to agree on. COVID-19 has forced campuses to move most coursework online, depriving students of any semblance of the “college experience.” They are paying the same amount of money for unsatisfying and unsatisfactory Zoom classes, maybe their dorm room if they live on campus and that is it. Two semesters have mostly been like this already, and they’re moving into a spring semester where things are unlikely to change.
Simply put, this isn’t what they signed up for or rightfully expect. Ask yourself: Would you be willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for something with only a fraction of the expected service? I’ll wait.
The cost of college and burden of student loan debt have skyrocketed astronomically over the past 15 years, and universities have heretofore refused to make the tough calls. Most have rejected efforts to hold down tuition increases.
Recently, Ganahl has fought to discount student tuition by 20% for the spring semester and to waive fees for services not provided due to the virus. Frankly, it’s the least the University of Colorado system — or any college or university — can do when they’re shortchanging students as it is. Unfortunately, her colleagues keep shooting down such eminently reasonable proposals, worried about the commensurate cuts they’d have to make.
Regents, trustees and administrators, I get that it’s not easy. But guess what? Everybody is hurting, and everybody is making cuts where they need to. At universities, that must begin with administrators.
“The fast rise in administrative hires, our ratio of non-faculty to faculty ... has risen dramatically in recent years,” Ganahl said on the radio. “Between 2010 and 2017, non-instructional spending rose by 65% at CU-Boulder versus 35% nationally…And we’re hiring six new administrators right now.” Higher ed is too top-heavy, she argues, and money must flow principally to the classroom and faculty, focused on the core institutional mission.
From his perch as an instructor at a much smaller, private university, Margesson agreed with Ganahl’s administration assessment. “It just seems like every time we turn around, at most universities, they’re saying, hiring freeze on faculty, increase class sizes so we can hire fewer adjuncts, which is also problematic for student learning,” he pointed out. “But then I jump online and there are two or three different administrative job openings.”
Again, universities like CU and Regis are unwilling to do the kind of belt-tightening everyone else is doing. Margesson and Ganahl agree that cuts must happen, although Margesson offered an important caveat: decision makers should watch out for the “most vulnerable people at the institutions,” such as minimum-wage janitorial staff.
“For example, when we dealt with the financial crisis of 2007-2008, we weren’t seeing across-the-board cuts in administrative salaries,” he said. “We weren’t seeing the firing of redundant administrative positions. What we were seeing was…cutting of janitorial staff by 50% — these are people that are working for minimum wage. And keeping 50% of the janitorial staff but keeping them down to half time, firing administrative assistants.”
Margesson’s caution is warranted and ought to be heeded while colleges and universities heed Ganahl’s call to make strategic cuts and pass the savings onto students.
There are fundamental changes to America’s higher education system that could help incentivize them to make the right calls, but that will take time and political will. For now, if the University of Colorado, Regis University and other higher ed institutions what to be taken seriously and respected amid the current crisis, they had better start respecting and listening to students and parents.
If they refuse, perhaps it’s time for an exodus of college students and an expansion of vocational education for high school graduates.