Few institutions have been more resistant to change than the education industry, particularly higher education.
Yet, as lawmakers increasingly note that Utah spends generously on higher education while ranking quite low in terms of K-12 spending, there's renewed talk of freeing up dollars being spent on higher education's administrative costs.
Consolidating those costs while preserving individual institutions, brands and identities is an intriguing, albeit controversial, idea worth exploring further.
Although few people like to hear the word "consolidation," there's no doubt that redundancies exist within higher education's administrative landscape. The Utah System of Higher Education consists of eight colleges and universities, all of which rely on legal personnel, government relations professionals, accountants, fundraisers, public relations specialists, compliance officers, marketing experts and myriad other administrative workers who often perform similar functions at each institution.
It's little wonder that in recent years there's been an uptick of mergers among public schools. Georgia has not only merged Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences University but has also, according to Time, "fused six other institutions into three, reducing the total number in its public system to 31, and reorganized 15 of the state’s technical colleges, saving an estimated $6.7 million a year on overhead."
By any measure, merging higher education institutions in Utah would be highly disruptive and vigorously resisted. Yet, in the long run, a consolidation for at least some of these services is an intriguing innovation that state leaders should consider as they search for increased dollars to spend in the classroom both at the state's colleges and universities as well as their K-12 institutions.
And yet, consolidation and developing economies of scales is just one of many innovative tools for improving the state's system and creating efficiencies.
Online learning, for example, still needs to become better integrated into college coursework. Requiring each student to take one or more online courses per semester would result in sizable savings. Colleges and universities may also seek to incorporate new education offerings such as computer coding classes. Coding boot camps have proven to be very successful business models that provide students with marketable skills and work-ready job prospects.
Educational institutions should be competing in this space, not being disrupted by it.
Utah happens to be among the few states with the kind of innovative spirit and openness to possibly embrace these kinds of disruption, and vigorous discussions are already underway to consider new ways to find funds to support K-12.
For too long, the mantra has been that unless more money is spent, education cannot improve. And yet, the public perception (correct or not) has increasingly become that higher education has been doing less with more. It’s time for higher education to find ways to do more with less.
Consolidating or sharing administrative services, as well as integrating online learning, are all efforts well worth vetting as the state seeks to find funds and improve its overall K-12 and higher-education offerings.