St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia is facing financial problems. Revenue is not as high as projected. Expenses continue to rise. So they're implementing budgetary cutbacks. Last year the university ran a $4.4 million deficit. Wow, what a huge surprise, right?
I don't mean to pick on St. Joe's. They are an excellent college. I have a St. Joe's grad working for me and I often meet their alumni in the business world who are smart and successful. Also, I live near the campus (my kids often play soccer on their turf field) and I think their outreach to the community is great. I want them to succeed. But the university is facing a problem that many other excellent colleges in the area and around the country are facing: the problem of potential extinction.
People just can't afford to pay $50K a year for a college education, even if it's at a good school like St. Joe's. The payback just isn't there. The numbers don't make sense. St. Joe's has to make some hard and unpopular adjustments if they want to survive. Adjustments that won't compromise their standards or reputation. And I've got a few tough ones to recommend.
End tenure. Only in academia do people have lifelong jobs. You can teach at a university from anywhere between 10-15 years, publish, speak and politic your way through the administration and sure enough you may never have to worry about a paycheck ever again. And if you change jobs, your tenure usually follows along with you. For colleges like St. Joe's to survive, this has to end. University professors need to compete and stay relevant. They need to be evaluated just like every employee in every business is. And they need to understand what it's like for the 99% rest of us who face termination at any time. Supporters argue that tenure allows professors to "think" and "write" more without worrying about a job. Baloney. Ending tenure will shake up the University system and may in the short term inhibit St. Joe's from attracting good faculty. But in the long term, as other universities follow (and they will follow), it will surely reduce their long term liabilities, create a better, more competitive work environment, increase compensation flexibility and improve educational quality.
Work more hours. I have three kids in college right now and I swear they're home more often than they're at school. They've got "mid-term" breaks, "winter breaks" "spring breaks" and of course "summer breaks". One of my kids finishes exams in April! Plus they get the usual holidays off. They have sometimes one class a day, sometimes NO classes in a day. And so do the teachers. So here's a crazy idea: instead of taking 4 years to complete a degree, why not do it in 3? Why not, like the rest of the civilized world, work during the summers and spring and December/January? Why not have 9-5 days of classes? You can cut the cost of education for your students, get more work done, increase enrollment, and attract those students who are looking for a better, more affordable model.
Co-Op and Partner. Go ahead, unabashedly reach out to the business community. Create a required co-op program ala Drexel and Northeastern Universities where your students get actual jobs at actual companies. Borrow some of the company's executives to teach classes. Oh, and please let those companies advertise, offer products and be more visible. Scandalous? No...it won't ruin academia - in fact it will put your students closer in touch with the business community and teach them more. While you're at it, reach out to other universities in the area and share classes with them. Instead of offering everything to everyone, focus on those certain areas of studies where your school can be best and coordinate education for your students in other disciplines with other institutions. You can expand your student population that way, make yourself more visible and offer more alternatives.
Your TA's suck...replace them. When I went to college in the early '80's my Teaching Assistants in Calculus and Economics were brilliant grad students who couldn't speak English and visibly hated me and my drunken friends making our feeble attempts to understand their world. And guess what? Nothing's changed in 30+ years. My kids report the same experience. Sure, this is partly due to the students being idiots (including my kids). But let's just admit that there's little education taking place here. Instead, reach out to educational sites like Curious.com and Google's Helpouts or Hangouts on Air - inexpensive, fast, new and easy to use. You can use these platforms to provide individualized instruction to your students by people from anywhere in the world who may better be able to relate to them. And you can do this for more students (i.e. more revenue) because it's a 24/7 schedule. (Note - some tell me that St. Joe's doesn't employ TA's, but this is intended for all colleges, not just them).
Re-consider your athletic programs. Temple University recently had to make some hard and unpopular choices and cut some of its athletic programs. Good for them. Two of my kids play Division 1 sports - they love it and they're excellent programs. These programs are ridiculously expensive and suck money away from education. Some Division 1 programs are worthwhile because they bring in revenues, provide good publicity for the school and offer opportunities for some kids. But most of the other athletic programs can be significantly curtailed (not necessarily cut) and the world will continue to turn. In other words, just because you've got a great football program doesn't mean you have to be spending boatloads of money on tennis too. No offense to the tennis players but...well...c'mon, you can play at a club level, and get good exercise and competition. You're at college to get an education, remember?
St. Joe's, like many great private colleges, does not just face financial problems. The university faces survival problems. And they will have to make hard and necessary changes in order to stick around.
A version of this column previously appeared on Philly Mag.
Follow Gene Marks on Twitter: www.twitter.com/genemarks