Monday, April 7, 2014

Retrofit 4: For the Love of Money

This is my fourth “thinking out loud” installment in preparation for the RBMS seminar “Retrofitting Expectations or Redefining Reality: What Does the Future of the Special Collections Professional Look Like?”

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By most accounts, state support for higher education is dwindling. In part, this has been a state response to the recession and weak economy. James Hilton noted in a talk to Minnesota library staff that “our institutions face profound and existential change. As a society, we are redefining our beliefs about the purposes of higher education and our conceptions of what it means to be ‘educated.’ Along the way, we are changing beliefs about who/how to pay for public education.”

According to the American Council on Education (ACE):

Despite steadily growing student demand for higher education since the mid-1970s, state fiscal investment in higher education has been in retreat in the states since about 1980. In fact, it is headed for zero. Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others. Public higher education is gradually being privatized.

My state, Minnesota, is characterized by the ACE as one of the “biggest losers.”

Minnesota has reduced its higher education investment by 55.8 percent…. Extending the trend since 1980 into the future, state funding for higher education will reach zero in 2037. But another extrapolation hits zero in 2032.

The National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO) paints a similar picture, while suggesting different solutions. “Tighter state resources, rising costs, high tuition rates and other factors make the current model of financing public higher education unsustainable.” In a recent report The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities indicated that Minnesota’s change in spending per student, adjusted for inflation, between fiscal years 2008 and 2013 was a negative 30.4%.

I’ll be retired by the time we reach the zero point. But my granddaughters will be in college. Will my state support their education in any way? Or will the entire burden fall to them and their parents? I’m not optimistic. The Atlantic recently published an article, “The Myth of Working Your Way Through College,” that opened with these words: “The economic cards are stacked such that today’s average college student, without support from financial aid and family resources, would need to complete 48 hours of minimum-wage work a week to pay for his (sic) courses—a feat that would require superhuman endurance, or maybe a time machine.”

The University of Minnesota Law School is currently engaged in a fundraising campaign “to ensure the future of the Law School's high-quality education and service to the profession and the larger community” regardless of how the state decides to fund higher education. Their goal is $70 million; they are 90% of the way there.

Throughout most of the Law School's history, the state of Minnesota heavily subsidized the cost of a legal education. But that funding has declined steadily over recent years. State support now represents only a very small fraction of the Law School's total budget, and that fraction is directed entirely to the Law Library, a resource we share with the University and broader community. In recent years, several other top public law schools that faced dwindling state funding made the move to financial self-sufficiency. Now the Law School is making that transition—to funding based almost entirely on tuition and philanthropy. A successful campaign will enable us to continue and expand on our agenda of excellence.

The University’s Carlson School of Management is in a similar situation. In a 2012 interview the school’s new dean, Sri Zaheer, made this observation:

As of last year, state funding for our school was 3.5 percent of our total budget. We’ve had, for all intents and purposes, to live, breathe, and think like a private school. We have a proposal to charge a tuition surcharge to our undergraduate [business] students, and that plan is close to being finalized. Our student body has grown 20 percent or more in the past four or five years, but we haven’t been able to [expand] our tenure-track faculty. Any tuition surcharge we collect from the undergraduate program will be dedicated to hiring new faculty.

In seeking approval for our current university budget, administrators and regents agreed to a two-year freeze on in-state tuition in exchange for increased funding from the state. It is a high-tuition, high-aid model that increases graduate, professional, and out-of-state tuition along with fees and room/board costs. First-year resident law students expected to see their tuition rise by nine percent. We no longer have a professional library school on campus; it was swept away in financial crises of the 1980s. Were it still in existence, I wonder how long it could survive under today’s constraints.

Let’s bring this back to the concerns of special collections professionals. What does the future hold, given the bleak landscape of state funding for higher education? What do these numbers tell us, if anything? Are there different concerns for public versus private institutions? Here are a few more questions to consider:

• Will dwindling state support mean less public money for acquisitions or staffing?
• Are we in the process of privatizing library operations?
• If state-funded acquisitions money decreases, will we be more reliant on gift funds or endowments to make up the difference?
• If so, would this reliance necessitate more time spent in fundraising and donor cultivation?
• Or do we care about the difference and simply purchase less for the collections?
• Will there be any new money for new staff, or will we rely on capturing funds from vacant positions and re-craft or re-design job descriptions as needed?
• Will there be greater pressure to develop and gain acceptance of grant proposals to cover part-time or short-term staffing as part of an externally funded project?
• How will preservation/digitization programmatic efforts hold up as state contributions shrink? (Or were the majority of these projects/programs always funded by external grants?)
• Will older staff feel pressured to consider early or phased retirement? (And are we opening ourselves up to possible age discrimination lawsuits?)
• How might increases in undergraduate student aid packages translate, if at all, in the number or quality of student assistants we employ?
• Does the model of adjunct faculty, translated onto a library stage, mean the use of lower-paid, project- or function-specific personnel to sustain library operations? Or has the plight of adjuncts created such bad press that libraries don’t want to go there?

There are more questions. This is just a sample occasioned by the specter of diminished state support.

There are a number of other haphazard thoughts, issues, or ideas floating around my mind that have some bearing on our panel topic; all are connected to expectations or realities. State funding is one piece of that randomosity. Stand by for more.

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