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Editor's Note

The New Reality

University Business, Oct 2009

IT MAY BE PREMATURE TO SAY for sure, but there have been encouraging signs lately from the economic world that the global economy is slowly being revived. We’re far from out of danger, but various indicators suggest that a light is faintly visible at the end of the tunnel.

And if there’s any doubt that education is a recession-proof industry, all one has to do is look at the numbers: The University of Tennessee at Martin has more than 8,000 students for the first time. Arkansas Tech University at Ozark is reporting a 60 percent increase in students from a year ago.

The Johns Hopkins University?certainly not cheap at $55,000 a year?had to reopen a defunct residence hall, lease a nearby inn, and add classes for popular math and science courses. The University of Central Florida may end up with about 52,000 students when a final head count is taken, making it one of the nation’s largest universities.

Everyone is adjusting to the idea that the bottom line is lower than before.

Despite the recession and higher than ever prices at many institutions, students are determined to go to college. That’s a good problem to have, say administrators, but even as that is happening, institutions still face the immediate effects of the recession, from reduced state funding to devalued endowments. Many institutions were forced into layoffs, furloughs, and salary cuts. Programs were dissolved, athletic teams disbanded, and building projects put on hold.

Many schools found increasing tuition and fees?sometimes twice in a year?unavoidable. At the 23 campuses of the California State University, tuition has increased by 30 percent, classes were eliminated, salaries cut, and positions eliminated?and in some cases students were turned away from schools that just can’t accommodate any more.

The University of California is considering a proposal to raise student fees 32 percent by next fall, boosting annual undergraduate tuition over the $10,000 level for the first time ever. And this is on top of salary cuts, reduced staffing, and classes being eliminated.

The new mantra at colleges and universities, as well as at most businesses, is “Do more with less.”

And they will.

This is the new reality. It’s unlikely that funding will match previous levels any time soon, or that prior salaries will be restored. Everyone, everywhere, is adjusting to the idea that the bottom line is now lower than it was before.

The days of freewheeling spending are just a fond memory. Now, each expenditure is being examined closely. But spend they must if schools are expected to continue to serve their constituents. The colleges and universities of the post-recession era, when it does come, will operate leaner but will still be faced with many of the challenges they have now.

And as evidenced by current and projected enrollment numbers, students will continue to pursue their education. That’s a good thing. The question will be, how long can some schools maintain their level of service with ever decreasing resources? They will have to find even more ways to provide for their constituents without expecting additional funding.

Technology will no doubt play a greater role in this post-recession economy. Solutions that promise to streamline business processes will get a closer look. Colleges and universities will seek out products and services that can reduce maintenance and operations costs. Classroom technologies that enhance teaching and learning will become even more commonplace.

When the dust settles, the institution may look and behave a bit differently, but its educational purpose will remain strong.

Write to Tim Goral at

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