Such classroom and activity cuts are drawing increasing criticism from students and faculty who point to what they consider to be continued wasteful extravagance. Florida Atlantic University laid off five computer science and engineering professors, but it is proceeding with construction on a new movie theater. (FAU officials say the construction is funded with donated and earmarked funds that couldn't be used for operations.)
North Carolina's legislature has ordered public universities to cut their budgets by about 10 percent but is still having taxpayers pick up almost $14 million worth of tuition for out-of-state students, including athletes. Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, says many other recession-strapped colleges are spending millions on coaches and stadiums in the hopes of recouping big bucks from television contracts or alumni donations. But NCAA research shows that's a loser's bet, Perko says. "In 2006, only 19 of the 119 programs in the most competitive division finished the year with positive net revenue," she noted. The average shortfalls of nearly $9 million were subsidized by students and taxpayers, she says.
Lead by example. The news isn't all dire. A few oil-rich states—such as Texas, Alaska, and North Dakota—are increasing their spending on higher education. And several hard-hit states, such as Michigan and Ohio, have managed so far to avoid drastic cuts at universities.
Many colleges are turning the cutbacks into an opportunity to shed luxuries that had become common during fat years. Just by reducing the number of support staff who travel with sports teams, ending the indiscriminate handing out of "participation awards" to student athletes, and canceling some social activities, the universities belonging to the Pac-10 sports conference figure they'll collectively save about $1 million. The University of Texas athletic department estimates it will save at least $300,000 by replacing its glossy media guide booklets with DVDs. Athletes around the country are now taking buses to many games, instead of chartered planes. During the winter, the State University of New York-Canton saved approximately $250,000 by turning thermostats down to 68 Monday through Thursday and a frosty 58 on Fridays, when there were no classes. East Carolina University saved $30,000 by switching from paper to electronic tuition bills. The University of Vermont cut its custodial budget by $400,000 in part by making professors empty their own trash bins.
Many university executives are attempting to reduce the impact on students and lead by example by absorbing some of the financial pain themselves. The leadership of the University of Tennessee voluntarily took a 5 percent pay cut and turned in the keys to university cars to save the campus $400,000. Arizona State University President Michael Crow donated his $60,000 bonus for 2008 to the university's financial aid office and took the same 15 unpaid furlough days as the rest of the executive staff in the first half of 2009.
A few educational visionaries are experimenting with radical course redesigns to save money and give more students a better shot at graduating. Robert Olin, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Alabama, has overseen the creation of a math lab that has revolutionized entry-level classes. No longer do students spend three or four hours a week listening to lectures, only to then do homework on their own. In the new classes, students get only 40 minutes of lecture a week but then do at least three hours of practice on specially programmed computers in the math lab, where there are lots of tutors to answer questions.
The new math courses cost the university about $82 per student—about two thirds of the cost of a traditional lecture class. But the pupils score higher on standardized end-of-course tests because they've had so much practice and individual attention, Olin says.