Austerity in Higher Education by Will Chaney

We often hear the phrase “college is expensive,” stated as if student debt and absurd fees are natural laws of the universe. However, it hasn’t always been this way. In other countries, it’s not even this way now. As Sam Rodgers pointed out in last month’s edition of The Monitor, the United States is the only country in the world where the average college student graduates with $26,000 in debt. The price of college is increasing at a rate four times faster than inflation, a rate that has very little bearing on the consumer price index (which strongly influences your wages). To find out why students are charged so much for their golden ticket to the American Dream, I was granted an interview with David Rector, Truman’s Vice President of Administrative Finance. He has served Truman for 40 years and held his current position for 20 years.

I entered McClain Hall, but left the busy crowd of students and teachers behind as I ascended the staircase to the second floor, where Mr. Rector’s office is located. At the top of the stairs, I found only a maze of rooms. The front lobby was empty, and looked like that neglected storage room in everyone’s basement. After some clumsy wandering, I finally found his office and was able to start the interview. He would later explain why this was the case.

As a state university, where does Truman’s funding come from?

Mr. Rector: Now, the primary source is student fees. Historically, if you go way back, there was much more state support. What has happened to all state universities in the country, and Missouri is not unusual in that, state support just keeps going down. When I started here, 75% of the budget came from the state. Now it’s down to 44%. It’s really a shift of national philosophy that students and their families should pay the bill.

Governor Nixon and the media have recently made a big deal about $2 million dollars in additional “performance funding.” What exactly is “performance funding?”

Mr. Rector: (chuckles) Performance funding is a very complicated formula. The General Assembly granted Truman a 5% raise in funding, or $2 million. However, this funding can only be realized if five criteria are met, one for each percentage point. Fortunately, Truman met these requirements this year and will next year (points to a intricate looking diagram). However, some universities only meet three or four of the criteria, and don’t get the extra state funding every year. “Performance funding” is so complicated that many faculty members don’t even know it exists. Just looking at the chart makes your eyes go crooked. Only a few individuals know how it works, and the Department of Education is in the process of writing a document with all of the details.

What kinds of cost saving measures has Truman had to undertake in the past five years, since the beginning of the Recession?

College is a very labor-intensive activity, so we have had to cut around 8% of our workforce. Fortunately, we’ve not had to lay anyone off and have instead been able to offer early retirement incentives and remission (the practice of not replacing jobs where professors have retired). We have cut an equal number of faculty and staff jobs. (He motions out the door) There used to be a secretary out there, and one for the administrator in the office next door. You can even tell by looking at all the empty parking spaces.

A lot of universities are switching from full time professors to adjuncts to save money. Many adjuncts are paid much lower salaries than their full time tenure track counterparts, and often earn close to the poverty line despite overloaded workdays. However, Truman’s faculty has a very low percentage of adjunct professors, only 16%, compared to the national average of 48%. What keeps this number low, and why hire adjuncts at all?

Mr. Rector: Truman has a firm commitment to teaching and avoids using adjuncts as a cost saving measure. Many of our adjuncts are retired professors who want to teach part time, or fill-ins for emergency cases. There was a communications professor who quit the day before classes began, so an adjunct was able to smooth the transition.

 Is there ever discussion, at the university level or above, of funding Truman completely with state funds, as is done in countries like Germany and France?

Mr. Rector: We wish. You could probably find that discussion if you went way back to the 1950s, but now the question is “can we hold our own when the General Assembly is making appropriations?” One of my mentors when I got here, who served in the Korean War, used to talk about the “quarter system,” where tuition was only $25. When I was in college in 1974, the cost was only $250 per semester. If you look at some communities like La Plata, which still has scholarship funds that were set up around this time, the award is permanently fixed at $250. It would have paid for college then, but is hardly worth your time now.

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