COLUMN ONE : Colleges Trim Costs to Stem Rising Tuitions : Many private universities consider limiting student charges and laying off faculty. Skeptics contend that the actions are to appease public anger.


At American universities, this time of year is usually one of self-congratulation. Graduates celebrate their farewells to alma mater. Faculty eagerly approach summer research trips. Administrators plan for bigger and better programs in the fall.

Yet this spring brings a different mood to many of the nation’s private universities. Campus presidents are looking to cut costs, limit tuition increases and stop expansions. Faculty and staff are worried about possible layoffs and enrollment declines. And a new sense of financial and academic limits is growing.

Stanford University, for example, an otherwise wealthy institution, plans to fire as many as 200 non-teaching employees over the next year in a 6% budget reduction. Washington University in St. Louis is killing its sociology department. Dartmouth is dropping some junior varsity sports. USC, facing a 12% drop in freshman enrollment, is considering all sorts of economies, including possible layoffs of part-time teachers.

“This reflects the feeling that universities can do a lot of things, but they can’t do them all well. So they’ve got to figure out what they can do best and cut back on other commitments,” said Robert Rosenzweig, president of the Assn. of American Universities, a group of top research institutions.


Less visible but as significant, he added, are the many universities deciding not to start programs they might have begun a few years ago.

Each school’s situation is different, but many leaders of private academia say they are reacting to the national outrage against tuition increases that in the past decade averaged 10% annually, about double the rate of general inflation. The U.S. Justice Department’s still-unresolved investigation of possible price fixing in tuition at 56 colleges and universities has added focus to that issue.

Some schools are purposefully raising fees by the smallest percentage since the 1970s--for example, 5.5% at Stanford, the lowest in 15 years. At Chapman College in Orange, this fall’s 4% increase to $11,910 is the smallest in decades at the four-year private Christian school.

Nevertheless, student tuition and living costs totaling $20,000 a year are becoming more common.

Universities with less prestige than Stanford and the Ivy League fear enrollment drops caused by the smaller number of college-age youngsters compared to a generation ago. At the University of Southern California, those demographics are compounded by an increasing price gap for students choosing between USC and the much cheaper education in the University of California system. Government grants to private education are not keeping pace with costs of financial aid and research, schools complain.

“There really is a national mood that says we have to look carefully at the way we do business in higher education,” said Robert Zemsky, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to Stanford on its latest budget. “This is yet one more American enterprise that is learning it has to be leaner and meaner.”

However, skeptics contend that some recent cuts may be aimed partly to appease public anger about tuition and to show potential donors that universities would spend gifts wisely. Many of the same schools trimming expenses in one office are conducting mammoth--and successful--fund drives out of another. There is no general crisis, just fine-tuning, critics contend.

“Some highly publicized reduction of expenditures is a smart thing to do both budget-wise and in public-relations terms,” said Chester Finn, professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University and former U.S. assistant secretary of education in the Reagan Administration.

He likened universities trimming costs to “someone who has gained an enormous amount of weight and says they are going to start a diet and knock a off a pound or two. There is still a fairly a corpulent body left.”

Such critics point to a study by the Chronicle of Higher Education showing that the number of non-teaching academic support employees--such as assistant deans--at 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities grew 61% between 1975 and 1985, compared to only 6% growth in full-time faculty.

Colleges say that new efforts and mandates in minority recruiting, safety and environmental protection caused such unbalanced growth. Because enrollment has grown only slightly or declined recently, those added costs could not be spread around as much. But universities now concede that such bureaucratic expansion cannot continue.

“This is a new era,” said Dartmouth College President James O. Freedman.

That New Hampshire school was caught between a looming $8-million deficit in two years and loss of public esteem over tuition hikes, he said. So Dartmouth is cutting about 2% from its base budget, eliminating 52 administrative posts, mainly through attrition. Also being cut are seven junior varsity sports, including tennis, soccer and golf. Tuition, room and board will rise 6% next fall to $20,496, although that is Dartmouth’s lowest percentage hike since 1968.

At Chapman, President Allen E. Koenig has ordered $700,000 in administrative cuts to help fund faculty salary increases and projected growth in the schools of business and communication arts. If enrollment does not grow as projected, however, Koenig said more cuts may follow next year.

Freedman said that academia began plans for belt-tightening before the federal investigation into possible price-fixing was revealed last summer. But he added: “There is no no question the investigation has enhanced the degree of introspection.”

Stanford expects to cut as many as 400 non-teaching jobs, half through attrition, by Sept. 1, 1991, in order to trim $22 million from its $388-million operating budget. William S. Massy, vice president for finance, said that will help pay for the $160 million in repairs to campus buildings damaged in last October’s earthquake. But more basic motivations, he said, are to make up for lower-than-expected research grants and to streamline bureaucracy.

“We decided we were spending too much on administration and no matter how much money an institution has, you don’t want to do that,” Massy said.

Stanford has a lot of money. Its $2.08-billion endowment is the fourth-largest per student in the nation, after Princeton, Harvard and Yale. Stanford’s current fund drive has pledges or gifts totaling $914 million toward a $1.1-billion goal. Yet, officials at Stanford and other universities contend that they cannot dip too deeply into endowment nest eggs without harming future generations and that most donations are earmarked for building projects or special research, not daily operating costs.

Such explanations are little consolation for Stanford librarians worried about imminent staff cuts speculated to be about 10%. “It’s hard to understand how services won’t be affected,” said reference librarian Joanne Hoffman.

The number of layoffs of USC clerical help and part-time faculty is not yet determined because the school is holding open its application process for freshmen and transfers through the summer. Still, USC projects a freshman class of about 2,500, down from 2,860 and 3,100 the two previous Septembers, a 19% drop over two years.

“It’s not the end of the world, but it is serious,” Gerald Segal, dean of USC’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said in an interview about the enrollment decline and looming cutbacks. In a recent memo to faculty, he described the situation as USC’s worst financial crisis in more than 20 years.

However, USC Provost Cornelius J. Pings said such a crisis would occur only if all efforts to boost enrollment over the summer fail. “And even if that were the case, it would not be beyond our capacity to manage it,” Pings said. The main effect would be felt next spring semester because most part-time teaching contracts for the fall are signed already.

USC surveyed students who were accepted at the school but have not sent in deposits for the fall. The main reason cited was cost: USC’s undergraduate tuition and fees, not including room and board, will total $14,378 in 1990-91, up 6.9% from this year, compared to $1,703 at a UC campus.

Meanwhile, state universities face their own financial worries, particularly in the Northeast, where weakening economies are hurting tax revenues. (In California, the UC and Cal State systems are threatening cutbacks if state spending limits are not raised and bond issues passed in Tuesday’s election.) However, private institutions such as like Stanford, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and Cornell are more dependent on tuition and have more freedom to make cuts without political oversight.

Columbia dropped its linguistics and geography departments last year and is considering a similar fate for its School of Library Service. Johns Hopkins debated eliminating its classics department this year, but finally kept it in smaller size. Cornell officials recently called for a 10% increase in the student-professor ratio through faculty attrition. Smith College is denying some students admission because the school cannot give them enough financial aid.

Ernst Benjamin, general secretary of the American Assn. of University Professors, said that such cuts are concentrated in the liberal arts, which attract less government and donor money than the sciences.

“That’s somewhat troubling because the mission of the university is to do what otherwise wouldn’t be done,” he said. “It’s just that you don’t want to see the university too market-driven.”

The universities say those changes have as much to do with low student demand and faculty weakness in the doomed departments as with the need to cut budgets.

At Washington University, the sociology faculty recently was down to seven, from 20 during its peak of popularity in the late 1960s. Sociology needed boosting, but, explained Martin Israel, dean of arts and sciences: “If you are going to use up faculty slots, do you put them in a department that is already weak or in a strong department? To improve sociology would have been a major commitment and we decided that commitment will be better used elsewhere.” Washington University will phase out its sociology department by 1991, melding some courses and professors into other disciplines and laying off younger, untenured faculty.

One of the sociology teachers there facing layoffs is Deirdre Boden. She complains that some universities are like corporations obsessed with quarterly balance sheets--to the detriment of education.

“Universities are involved in the stewardship of human culture and, frankly, if you take the basic funding away from the study of, say, Aristotle, you are throwing a lot away for the apparent short-term gain,” she said. “The nature of research and writing is a long-term thing.”

The debate over the classics department at Johns Hopkins was similar but had a happier outcome because of a $1.5-million donation from the descendants of one of the first classics professors there. However, it is difficult to maintain all traditional offerings while meeting new demands for videocassette recorders, computers and laboratories, according to Lloyd Armstrong, Johns Hopkins’ dean of arts and sciences.

“To close a department is not an easy thing to do,” Armstrong said. “But I think you will find every university looking very hard at its departments.”

Federal support for university research in sciences and technology actually increased, after inflation adjustment, from $5 billion in 1978 to $8 billion in 1988, according to a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences and other groups. But because costs and ambitions increased and more schools are chasing those federal dollars, individual schools feel financially pressed, the study said.

“For those institutions that really care about quality, that want to be on the frontier of education and scholarship, or both, the cost of leadership is just rising faster than anybody’s resources. And it’s not that resources are rising slowly,” Princeton President Harold T. Shapiro said.

Because of a recent round of budget trims, Princeton no longer offers unlimited psychological counseling for students; the new limit is eight sessions.

Meanwhile, Shapiro said he receives a proposal nearly every week for a new program or division.

“All kinds of people think we think should open a law school,” he said. “My view is that there are lots of good law schools in the country. And if we are going to reserve our resources, we need to have the courage to say no. Choices can be--and must be--made.”