I doubt that many college presidents listen to country music, but perhaps they should.
Country music is full of lyrics about people getting in trouble because they made poor decisions. In Mama Tried, Merle Haggard admits he wouldn't be in jail if he had listened to his mother. And of course, there are hundreds of country songs about guys who lost their marriages because they hung out in honky-tonks with loose women.
American colleges and universities, like country-music singers, have made spectacular mistakes. But unlike the hillbilly bards, college leaders won't admit it. They just raise tuition and go on wild building sprees. Now they can't pay their bills.
As Jon Marcus wrote for The Hechinger Report, higher education's bad choices left it dangerously vulnerable when the coronavirus pandemic became its black swan. What did the universities do wrong?
First of all, colleges continued hiring faculty even though they were attracting fewer students. As Marcus pointed out, overall enrollment in American colleges and universities shrank by 12 percent since the last recession (2008-2009), while higher education increased the number of employees by five percent.
In particular, many colleges didn't decrease staffing levels for programs that were in decline. Fewer and fewer students choose education or liberal arts as their major. Still, many institutions did not reduce staff or eliminated majors even though the professors had fewer students to teach.
Second, Marcus correctly noted that the trustees at many universities abdicated their leadership role to be "boosters, cheerleaders, and donors." Many college boards paid their presidents lavish salaries with overly generous benefits, bonuses, and hefty retirement packages. For example, Penn State University and Michigan State paid departing presidents millions of dollars in golden-parachute money after they left their positions in the wake of explosive sexual-abuse scandals.
Rather than trimming their financial costs or operating more efficiently, most colleges responded to rising costs by raising tuition, forcing students to take out larger and larger student loans. As students reacted to sticker shock, the colleges switched tactics by offering huge tuition discounts of 50 percent or more to lure students into enrolling. That didn't work out well for most higher education institutions. Their tuition discounts didn't reverse their financial woes, and revenues continued to drop.
Now the coronavirus has become an expensive problem for colleges and universities. Many of them will close. But they can't blame COVID-19 for their misfortune. A lot of colleges were "dead men walking" even before the pandemic showed up as a black swan event.
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