CSCU system spending should be more detailed and transparent

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CSCU President Mark Ojakian has mentioned repeatedly that contract negotiations with unions in higher education are important because of a dire need to rein in spending within our system. I agree. However, before we once again attack the problem of “doing more with less” we have a responsibility to the taxpayers and students to clearly detail how we currently spend.

As a system, we haven’t done this.

A question as simple as “how much money is spent on classroom instruction per student?” will be met with waffle and consternation. You will not find it, for example, on Central Connecticut State University’s Fast Facts web page.

Depending on who you ask, the answer will be different. Some will count administrative and instructional support as a classroom expense whereas others will just count faculty salary. Supposing you had the answer in hand, then you could ask detailed questions about student service. The first step for financial stability and planning in the system is to make spending within the system meaningfully transparent. Currently it is not.

If you were to listen to our system president speak, he would paint a picture of high faculty salaries as a barrier to student service. But can one use self-reported university data to support that claim? The university reports combined salaries of all units — including clerical, instructional faculty, administrative faculty, and management. When buried into one line item high faculty pay assertions remain uninvestigated and unchallenged.

However, external data from the Chronicle of Higher Education illustrate the following trends. Management at CCSU makes on average $136,478 rather than $98,508 at comparable four year institutions. A professor at CCSU makes an average of $89,910 at CCSU as compared to $107,625. This is data that would help guide discussions; yet campus salary reporting is obfuscated.

If you read Charter Oak’s NEASC report, one can determine that instructional costs account for only 12.8 percent of their total expenses. Not a lot spent on faculty. It’s more of an administration and support-heavy enterprise.

For CCSU, this data is not readily available. It can be estimated by using faculty salaries (which have to be separated from the rest of the university by hand). The percentage is more towards 45 percent.

Should this data be more readily available? What percentage reflects an acceptable operating practice? Should our system be focusing on in-class teachers or out-of-class support? Are full-time professor that are expected to maintain scholarship more desirable than part-time online learning instructors? [Full disclosure: I certainly think so!] Which do students want or expect? If students are mandated to take online courses does that mean the savings from cheaper instruction will be passed on to them?

The data that is currently being reported cannot be easily used to guide dialog. It is not meaningfully transparent.

What little specific data you glean from ancillary sources paints a picture of a system in disarray moving money away from the students that it is supposed to serve.

Two examples illustrate this point. In December 2014, CSCU officials reported to a joint committee of Higher Ed and Appropriations that half of their $1.3 million dollar initial allotment of “Go Back to Get Ahead Money” was spent on marketing, administration and student tracking software instead of giving more scholarships to students as intended. Second, a recent report by the NCAA highlights the fact that CCSU is third in the nation in the percentage of money used from the university general fund to balance their D1 athletic budget.

CCSU has to spend $12.9 million dollars of taxpayer and student money to balance its $14.7 million dollar annual tab. You won’t find an unbalanced budget athletics document on CCSU’s “Consumer Information and Required Disclosures” webpage because they count the support from the general fund as justifiable revenue. This amounts to CCSU spending on average $38,932 per full-time equivalent athlete, but only $15,831 per full time equivalent non-athletic student.

The data begs questions: Do students have the right to know how much of their tuition and fees are being redirected out of the classroom? Is it okay for a university to rob Peter to play Paul? Do taxpayers have a right to know how much they are contributing to CCSU’s D1 hoop dreams? What types of expenses within CSCU are sustainable?

Meaningful transparency means giving the people data that illustrates how an organization is really spending money. How much is spent in the classroom? Where does a student’s tuition and fees go? How can we cut costs without damaging the learning environment?

None of these questions can currently be answered easily based upon the self-reporting of the state university system. The currently collected self-reported data is meant to keep wider issues out of the discussion altogether. It’s time for a meaningful change in expense reporting. It’s time for meaningful transparency.

What do you think?

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