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Why academic administrators need to learn business talk

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Which college majors are the smartest on average?
Philosophy, followed by physics and astronomy, economics, and mathematics, have the largest number of standard deviations above the GRE mean.

Which college majors make the most money in mid-career (that didn’t earn a college or professional degree)?
Economics, engineering, and mathematics rank highest, followed by philosophy majors.

Which college majors have the fastest growing salary?
Naturally, philosophy majors are followed by mathematics, economics, political science, and, believe it or not, art history.

As Matthew Yglesias, a widely read economic and political blogger and journalist with a BA from Harvard University, has observed, a degree in philosophy indicates intelligence, which is why top tech firms like Google often hire philosophy majors to manage algorithm developers, computer graphics and visualization specialists, coders and others with technological skills.

The study of epistemology, ethics and metaphysics turns out to be valuable not only in themselves, but also as a substitute for other attributes, above all, logic and rule-based thinking.

Instinct, hunch, and intuition are generally poor guides for decision-making. In today’s challenging economic environment, it is critical for academic administrators at all levels to acquire a solid understanding of data-driven decision-making and academic program evaluation and management.

A good place to start is Robert Gray Atkins Start, stop or growa highly digestible guide to understanding academic program financials, course and faculty economics, changing market demand patterns, and strategies for deciding which programs to start, maintain, terminate, or grow.

The book also describes the process campus leaders should follow if they hope to strengthen faculty relationships and improve the financial health of their institution by optimizing costs, increasing retention, and pursuing growth strategies by opening new majors and entering new markets.

As an aside, let me note that Atkins’ book is in part a proposal for Gray Associates, a higher education data analytics, software, and strategy consulting firm. I am generally reluctant to cite literature that can be dismissed as self-serving or self-serving, but in this case, let me make an exception. The information presented in this book is too valuable to be dismissed as fluff, sales pitch or just marketing gimmick.

Atkins begins by discussing a concept that deserves much more attention than it usually receives: the trade-offs, inevitable trade-offs, trade-offs, sacrifices, and opportunity costs that academic decision-making entails.

After all, economics is all about trade-offs, as every choice carries costs, whether in terms of remaining options or alienated stakeholders, and the economics of higher education is no exception.

The book reminds us that the path to financial health or institutional sustainability is strewn with trade-offs.

  • Between an emphasis on career-oriented learning or a more traditional liberal arts and science education.
  • Between investing in existing programs or launching new programs.
  • Between directing resources to academic programs, faculty research, or support services and scholarships.

Precisely because the trade-offs are painful from an ethical and political point of view, administrators must make decisions skillfully, fairly, diplomatically, and respectfully.

Along with the concept of trade-offs, Atkins emphasizes the concept of margin, the difference between the revenue a program or course generates and the staff, lab, and support costs they incur. For-profit colleges and universities, of course, do not make a profit. But these institutions must nevertheless produce enough revenue – a margin – to pay for the cross-subsidies and overhead costs that keep the institution functioning.

Calculating each program’s margin is no easy task, and Atkins’ book tells you how to do it in easy-to-understand language. As Atkins explains, the margin should typically be at least three times the cost of training.

Contrary to what you might think, some programs with lower faculty costs and larger class sizes, such as English and history, have below-average ROIs, while some higher-cost programs, such as computer science and nursing cases that give above-average profitability. In fact, the profitability of nursing is 40 percent above average, despite high costs and enrollment restrictions imposed by accreditors and health care providers.

So what’s an administrator to do? The President or Chancellor, Provost, Deans, Department Chairs, and Program Directors shall:

▪ Cultivate a common framework of understanding.
Without a common set of accepted facts and a common framework and language for interpreting the data, reaching consensus is likely impossible. However, even then, reaching agreement will be difficult, as priorities collide and interests collide.

▪ Evaluate every program, whether currently existing or proposed, rigorously and systematically.
Such assessment involves:

  • Assessment of student demand
  • Measuring student enrollment and performance disaggregated by gender, race, ethnicity, and Pell Grant status
  • Calculation of the value of the credit hour is complete
  • Measurement of departmental overhead costs
  • Examining market trends and identifying skills that should be integrated into specific programs
  • Assessment of possible employment and salary outcomes, including graduate job postings
  • Identifying competitors on campus and online

▪ Stay focused on the mission.
According to William F. Massey, professor emeritus of education and business administration and former vice president and provost at Stanford University, a successful strategy to make a university more financially healthy must be mission-driven, market-savvy, and margin-conscious. It should”use the proceeds from the market to invest” in its values ​​and historical mission. Anything less will quite rightly alienate faculty, alumni, and students.

▪ Strive for efficiency.
Efficiency is not a four-letter word. It’s one of the ways — along with grants, contracts, patents, partnerships, philanthropy and ancillary revenue — that institutions use to generate the surplus needed to invest in the college’s priorities — existing and future academic programs, student services, research and community partnerships — and also in facility operation, maintenance, regulatory compliance, financial aid administration, student mental health, and a host of other costs.

The key to maximum efficiency is optimizing course offerings, scheduling, staffing, and delivery methods. In some cases, this will certainly lead to repulsion: by

  • Reducing the number of course releases
  • Ensuring a minimum number of applicants
  • Reducing the number of ungraded sections
  • Elimination of duplicate courses
  • Curriculum proliferation
  • Increasing the class size limit
  • Offering lower demand rates per cycle
  • Requiring senior faculty to teach fewer graduate and advanced classes and offer more service courses

But in other cases, efficiencies can actually increase enrollment and speed students’ time to degree. Offering additional sections of required or gateway courses at times students find convenient or online can be a win-win, synchronous or asynchronous, can increase departmental enrollment and eliminate degree bottlenecks.

▪ Focus directly on conservation.
The easiest and most obvious way to improve an institution’s finances is to retain more students. A single failed class that leads a student to drop out or transfer typically costs a college tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. It is much cheaper to retain a student than to find and enroll a replacement.

▪ Be strategic.
To be strategic, administrators must be attentive, focused, proactive, decisive, forward-looking, and goal-oriented. It involves an awareness of threats and opportunities and a commitment to making decisions based on facts and informed guesswork. It also means aligning recommendations with the institution’s mission, financial health and long-term sustainability.

Of course, the techniques Atkins describes can be used for good or bad. After all, they are tools, and any tool in the wrong hands can be used for evil: for example, to lure students to institutions without any guarantees of four-year financial aid, or to drag graduate students into programs that lead to high debt and poor job prospects .

An astute legal education analyst, writing under the pseudonym Unemployed Northeastern, has described some of the rather nefarious strategies some law schools have adopted to maximize revenue, rankings and reputation.

In the early 20sthousand 20th century, elite law schools did their best to discredit and destroy what Lawrence Friedman called the “ethnic bar”—evening and correspondence schools that taught blacks, women, and recent immigrant lawyers—while conducting entrance exams (which initially included the requirement of translation of the Greek and Latin texts) is deliberately designed to keep out “interferers”.

Elite schools subsequently introduced a theoretical rather than a practical or professional curriculum, hired faculty straight out of law school rather than practicing lawyers, and taught law students to “think like a lawyer” rather than how to actually practice law. .

More recently, Unemployed Northeastern explained to me, accredited law schools have responded to the sharp drop in enrollment in JD programs during the recent recession by introducing a host of LL.M., MJur, and LLM degrees, among others, of dubious or uncertain value.

Now, to make it easier to apply to law school, a growing number of law schools no longer require the LSAT, and the American Bar Association is considering dropping the requirement that law schools use any standardized tests when weighing student applications.

So make sure your institution follows the advice of Robert Gray Atkins and William F. Massey as it strives to achieve financial health and sustainability: Stay mission-conscious and values-driven. Anything less is absolutely unethical.

Stephen Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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