Identify Inefficiencies on the Academic Side of the House


The vast majority of an institution's resources are expended on instructionally related and academic support activities. Institutions looking to identify inefficiencies and reallocate resources toward key investments are likely to find the most opportunities to increase efficiency by revisiting their academic programs and units.

Lucie Lapovsky, president of Lapovsky Consulting and past president of Mercy College, offers advice on where to look to begin freeing up resources and using existing resources more efficiently.

"Many leaders haven't given enough attention to cutting costs on the academic side of the house."
Lucie Lapovsky, Lapovsky Consulting

Audit Your Curriculum

Lapovsky recommends asking some hard questions, using your mission or strategic vision as a guide to help you identify what is core and what isn't:

  • Do you have unnecessary duplication in courses within your own curriculum?
  • Are there opportunities to share resources with neighboring institutions?
  • Do you have many courses that are consistently under-enrolled?

"Where do you share curriculum with other schools in your vicinity or with schools you could partner with? Not every school needs to offer courses in every language."
Lucie Lapovsky, Lapovsky Consulting

Start by auditing your core curriculum. "The more choices you have," Lapovsky cautions, "the less likely you are to fill up all the seats in your classes. It's like a restaurant: the more options you give on a menu, the more wasted food there's likely to be." It is common for institutions to expand the credit hours of their core over time, but often this entails unnecessary mission creep. Lapovsky advises defining very specifically what your core curriculum needs to accomplish. "You may have to step outside the box and redesign. Start with what ought to be, not with what is. What are your goals? What are the options for reaching those goals? What are the actual competencies an educated citizen needs?"

Next, audit the curriculum for your individual majors. How many credits are required to satisfy a particular major? Majors with higher credit requirements are costlier, so make sure that if you have them, it's because they are necessary. A few years ago, one major public university system required all academic departments with degree requirements in excess of a certain number of required credits to justify the reason for it to the board of regents.

"Redesign your curriculum in an efficient fashion," Lapovsky advises. "Don't offer under-enrolled courses every term; look at a one- to two-year curricular cycle so that you can fill up all the seats in your classes."

Faculty Workload

Lapovsky suggests assessing faculty workload. The more public service and research you expect of faculty, the less teaching they will be able to provide -- so academic leaders need to evaluate the balance of these commitments with care. At your institution, is faculty workload aligned closely with your mission, or is there evidence of mission creep? Make sure you have thought through both how your mission is driving the way you invest your faculty's time, and the impact of your decisions on the cost of delivering education.

Also, as you look to increase registration in some classes, there may be ways to rethink your teacher/student ratio without losing academic rigor. What's needed is creative thinking. Lapovsky cites the example of a course at UC Berkeley that was planned to include a big lecture by the tenured professor, supplemented by small seminars of 20 students each, led by 10 graduate assistants. The course was planned for 200 students ... but 400 students signed up. The solution? The campus offered a two-credit version of the course that included only the lecture, and a four-credit version that included both the lecture and the seminars. This expanded access to the course without sacrificing academic rigor and without adding more faculty or assistants.

Help Students Graduate Sooner

Further, if your institution charges students a flat rate of tuition for a range of credit hours (e.g., one price for 12 to 18 credits per term), Lapovsky notes that you can achieve savings by ensuring that students graduate on time and take fewer courses. Besides auditing your curriculum to pare down requirements to include only what's most essential, this entails streamlining processes to make it easier for students to register for the right courses when they need them.

Lapovsky suggests letting students do their own degree audits regularly. "Make the degree audit available online." An online audit can keep both students and advisers up to date. Many registrars already use effective online programs, often for a degree audit in the spring of the junior year. Lapovsky recommends having these programs shared out with academic departments and with students. Give the program an easy Web-based, end-user interface. The ability to produce a degree audit quickly will empower students to make smarter choices.

Also, as schools become more crowded -- particularly public institutions with rising enrollments -- students may get closed out of full courses. Inability to secure prerequisites can cause a delay in graduation of a term or, in some cases, a full year. This is especially a risk now, as institutions that are tight on resources may be hesitant to open new sections of a course unless absolutely needed.

"Does your institution give priority to students taking a course as a prerequisite over students who are taking a course as an elective?"
Lucie Lapovsky, Lapovsky Consulting

"There aren't great solutions to this problem," Lapovsky warns. "You'll have to be creative." The best initial step is to map out your curriculum and establish a system that ensures that students who need a course for a prerequisite in their major have first priority at registration. Once you have done that, look for alternative means of getting students into courses that they need in order to fulfill requirements. For example, if a course is full, find opportunities for a student to take an online course or a comparable course at a nearby institution -- and ensure that the credit will transfer quickly.

Finally, Lapovsky recommends revisiting your academic calendar. How are you using summer session? "An agrarian calendar doesn't make sense in this day and age," Lapovsky remarks. "It's a much more cost-effective use of your resources -- both facilities and faculty -- to adopt a year-round calendar." This also increases your flexibility in scheduling required courses.

Rely on Data

Wherever you start trimming -- whether you are evaluating academic or administrative programs -- Lapovsky cautions that it is crucial to make decisions based on hard data. "If your school is already focused on student learning outcomes and retention rates," she remarks, "you will be better able to make changes and see the effects of them." Don't make assumptions. You want to cut and reallocate resources where there is a high likelihood of positive impact on student learning and persistence.