A Four-Step Plan to “Right-size” the Curriculum

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there’s been a growing concern about the escalating cost of an undergraduate education. With those concerns have come questions as to the real value of the education. Numerous writers have examined the return-on-investment (ROI) of an undergraduate degree; some writers, referencing the increased unemployment rates of recent college graduates, have come to the conclusion that higher education does not offer a reasonable ROI. The issue has bubbled up to the highest level. President Obama in 2011 called a meeting of national educational leaders to discuss the rising cost of education and how we can overcome the issue of affordability and graduation gridlock. At a time when the U.S. needs more college graduates to remain globally competitive, and demographic shifts make it imperative to make higher education accessible to underserved populations, we are outpricing higher education for even the middle class.
At state colleges and universities, tuition increases that are disproportionate to inflation are a direct result of government reductions in appropriations for higher education. For example, the appropriation for state colleges in Vermont has declined from nearly 60% in 1980 to approximately 16% in 2011. Put another way, the distributed appropriation per Vermont student in 1980 was approximately $15,000, whereas in 2011, it was $10,000. While Vermont funding has historically been below the national average, Vermont is by no means unique in this situation.

Reacting to these trends, colleges and universities have aggressively trimmed budgets primarily in non-academic areas and created new streams of revenue to offset the governmental cutbacks. For many colleges, these kinds of adjustments have worked in the short term, but now there is little left to cut on the administrative side of the house. By almost any measure, the status quo is not working. We can no longer avoid merely glancing at the academic side of the institution which has been, up to this point, the sacrosanct purview of the faculty. If we are going to continue increasing access and serve our historic role of educating future citizens and functioning as an economic driver of our society, we need a new and rigorous examination of cost structures on the academic sides of the house.

With the aggregate intelligence located on college and university campuses, why are we waiting for the federal government to dictate our future? Why have we not harnessed that talent to think outside our current and historical box? We can no longer avoid considering new models for cost containment on the academic side of colleges and universities—particularly when we consider that the curriculum is the primary driver of costs. Only rethinking the development and delivery of the curriculum will address today’s issue of cost containment in significant and sustainable ways.

Emerging models

Models of cost containment have emerged along with policies to ensure efficiencies at the states and system levels. For example, Carol Twigg has designed and tested models to more economically deliver courses with multiple sections. Not only is the model efficient but it has been demonstrated to enhance learning; however, while Twigg’s models are effective for large universities, they do not yield the same savings for small colleges.

Development of the Delta Project at the University of Delaware has provided a means to measure program efficiencies; Colleges can now financially benchmark their programs , thus providing a yardstick against which individual program costs can be analyzed, evaluated and redesigned. Another approach has been to suggest a no frills, three-year hybrid degree model which has the potential to generate a much better relative return for taxpayers’ investment in higher education.

Many states have had or recently adopted policies regarding the minimum number of students in a major and the minimum number of graduates each year before coming under financial scrutiny. While such policies will help colleges eliminate some of the institution’s “sacred cows,” (e.g. the organic chemistry program with only five students) the policies are only as good as their enforcement. Closing a program takes courage and leadership.

While each of these solutions is helpful in moving colleges and universities forward on the path of increased cost effectiveness, they are but a few independent tools. College affordability requires a comprehensive approach that rigorously examines every aspect of the teaching/learning paradigm as we now know it and a willingness to address “sacred cows.”

It is time to change current curricular models and delivery. If we collect and analyze the right data, and then are courageous enough to make the necessary changes informed by this analysis, we can reduce cost significantly and perhaps increase learning. There is no one silver bullet but a series of steps can bring change. The steps outlined below have brought savings of nearly 11% of the instructional budget annually to Vermont’s Lyndon State College.

Four steps to efficiency

To begin the process of rightsizing the curriculum, a four part, data-driven plan can bring long-term savings to the institution.

First, launch a process. The initial step of this plan is for the college leadership to take the necessary steps to prepare the faculty to undertake curriculum analysis from a cost savings perspective. The process of educating and establishing a process for curricular analysis will vary from institution to institution. However, it is essential to lay out the fiscal and learning foundation for the process. Something akin to a Blue Ribbon Commission of faculty and administrators, charged by the president, will signal significant change is coming.

Second, the institution must collect the ”right” data and format the data in ways to make useful comparisons both internally and externally. This will bring faculty into the process. Below is the data Lyndon State collected over a five-year period and analyzed.

  • Admissions: inquiry; applications; deposits
  • Enrollment profile (at LSC the proportion of out-of-state students in the enrollment mix was financially significant given the tuition differential)
  • Retention rate: overall and by program
  • Credits generated by department: required program credits; general education credits; elective credits
  • Graduation rate: overall and by program
  • Placement rate: overall and by program

Third, start the process with a simple review of the class schedule over the past two or three years. This simple, but challenging review, helped Lyndon State College to reduce its instructional budget by $400,000 while continuing to serve the same number of students and providing them with a consistent level of quality in the educational experience. This saving was achieved by reducing low-enrolled courses from the schedule while ensuring students could meet their graduation requirements and by restricting the number of course choices available to students. The long-term benefit of this exercise was the development and adoption of a scheduling model to sustain savings going forward and continue to reduce costs and allow for innovation and creativity in the process; the model calculated the number of credits a department could offer based on general education and major requirements and caps the number of credits the department could offer in the schedule.

The fourth and final step is the development and implementation of an ongoing fiscal review of the curriculum. Most colleges or state systems have some form of academic program review that generally focuses on the academic effectiveness of the curriculum. While some items in the review often refer to cost, program cost is a minor component. Academic review is essential and should be rigorously focused on learning outcomes as measured by institutionally defined metrics. Yet, colleges must be financially viable and in turn so must their programs. To be sure, every college has a few programs it subsidizes for whatever reason; yet, there have to be a number of programs – the ‘cash cows’ to support them. Collection and analysis of financial and enrollment data will empower the college to make conscious decisions about their program mix as opposed to limping along on happenstance.

While it is difficult to fully account for the savings realized by these curricular changes, it is reasonably accurate to estimate that such modifications represents approximately 10% of the annual instructional budget for a small institution (approximately 1,500 FTE). These are not one-time monies; these changes produce ongoing savings. Again, there can be several unintentional benefits captured by this process.

A set of guidelines (numerics) emerged at Lyndon for determining program viability—such as minimum total enrollment and graduation rates and placement rates and institutional transparency along with the notion that some programs are not “tenured”—some programs actually have a life span. This process can also send an important message—that faculty are accountable for enrollment and retention in their programs and should not expect to teach their individual courses with little note of financial impact on the institution.

The curricular review plan outlined above will provide a methodology to restructuring the curriculum systematically, with data as the driving force and lay the foundation for further questions about the content and delivery of the undergraduate program leading to additional efficiencies. Such questions will ultimately lead to deeper questions of mission, goals, effective pedagogy and student learning. For example, as Lyndon incorporates early and often experiential learning opportunities for students examining the cost of those experiences was predictable. In doing so it was determined that training senior students to conduct selected field experiences in some majors saves significant faculty time while giving the seniors opportunities to synthesize and apply their own learning. This new design for an introductory course in a single major could reduce costs by over $50,000. While we know this process can work for institutions, the outcomes realized will be proportional to the rigor of the implementation and the courage of the leadership to challenge the curricular status quo.

Disruptive change is coming to higher education. And this change will be driven by two fundamental factors: It has never been more important to our country that Americans have access to a college education, but it has never been more difficult to afford. Financial access to higher education is imperative for our society. Perhaps the greatest driver behind the change is the decreasing public investment in higher ed paired with the increased expectation that higher education (at least public higher ed) continue to serve as the access point for students who otherwise would not be able to pursue a college degree. This dichotomy requires that public institutions adopt practices across the institution where every expense can be justified in the context of two key questions: Will it help us fulfill a mission of access? Can we afford to do this?

Senior leaders must start to shift the faculty culture by challenging faculty to think differently about content and delivery of the curriculum such that student learning can be achieved using new modes of delivery in more cost-efficient ways. The time has arrived where all must embrace and respond to the challenges that lie before us. This is a daunting mandate but what is at stake is the economic power of the nation and preservation of a democratic society—as both depend on educated citizens.

Carol A. Moore is principal of Moore Academic Strategies and former president of Lyndon State College. Bob Whittaker is dean of institutional advancement at Lyndon State.



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