By Amanda Tonoli
An Affordability and Efficiency Report issued by the Ohio Department of Higher Education reveals that Youngstown State University could do better at saving money through being more efficient.
YSU, for example, is saving just 7.5 percent of what Wright State University, a comparable university, is saving; and 9 percent of what Kent State University will save for this fiscal year.
These efficiencies involve doing more with less: addressing needs for more efficiency both in expense management and revenue generation, while offering an education of equal or higher quality and decreasing costs to students and their families.
The Affordability and Efficiency Report is generated because of a state requirement in House Bill 64 mandating boards of trustees at state institutions of higher education to generate an efficiency review, based upon recommendations of the governor’s Task Force on Higher Education Affordability and Efficiency.
The document is something that frustrates Neal McNally, YSU vice president for finance and business operations. He argues that it does not accurately portray the entirety of affordability and success that YSU is achieving.
Although McNally said he does not want to dismiss the report, he is mindful of the message behind it.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t note this is somewhat of a political tool. This is meant to highlight the governor and Legislature’s commitment to addressing the issue of higher education cost inflation – which is something that is real,” he said. “But this is something that will poll well with voters.”
One aspect he finds frustrating is that YSU’s cost goes unaccounted for.
“We know YSU is already one of the most affordable universities in the state,” McNally said. “We are 20 percent lower than the state average and 9 percent lower than national average. In terms of affordability, we are kind of already there.”
YSU President Jim Tressel said he is proud of YSU’s affordability.
“It is in a great place, and people can only wish to be where we are,” he said.
McNally added: “There are a lot of metrics in the higher education industry” to pay attention to, and it becomes difficult “to get a report of this kind that creates a whole new group of metrics kind of thrust upon us.”
YSU has 12,801 students and employs 370 full-time faculty on an urban campus that relies heavily upon commuter students, although student housing on and around campus has been increasing.
Wright State in Dayton – listed by YSU as a comparable school for institutional research – has 16,655 students and 910 full-time faculty, and its campus is 12 miles from the city’s center.
Kent State, meanwhile, is Ohio’s second-largest public university, mostly residential, extending its footprint into downtown Kent. KSU has 40,782 students and 3,143 total staff members.
In the YSU report, many line items did not report specific numbers for savings, skewing the results compared with Wright State’s reported line items.
YSU’s total reported savings from efficiencies is $1,206,000, not including potential savings such as standardizing credit savings.
WSU’s total reported savings – which included specific figures – and KSU’s total reported savings, also with specific numbers, are $15.7 million and $13.5 million from efficiencies, respectively.
Some examples of the savings this year for WSU include establishing partnerships with Barnes & Noble and food-service operator Chartwells, generating $2,227,748 in revenue, as well as the procurement of card services with JP Morgan Chase for a rebate of almost $500,000, according to another ODHE report, the Chancellor’s Efficiency Advisory Committee and Efficiency Report.
KSU in nearby Portage County utilized an expiring contract with FirstEnergy Solutions in June 2016 locking in rates that were 13 percent lower than the current rates for the next three years. The 13 percent reduction will save $900,000 over the next three years.
KSU also implemented a communication campaign called “GOT 15” that gets students to take 15 credit hours per semester, saving them an extra year in school and $25,000. Before implementing GOT 15, just 67 percent of first-year students were enrolled in 15 or more credit hours, and since implementation, 81 percent of first-year students are enrolled in 15 or more credit hours each fall.
YSU trailed WSU and KSU with its $1 million savings in payroll and benefit costs due to not filling positions after retirements.
YSU, however, has implemented similar programs and savings options including the Summer Jumpstart Program “whereby incoming freshmen students can take up to two 3-credit hour courses for a reduced flat rate of $500 for one course or $1,000 for two courses from a select menu of General Education courses,” the Affordability and Efficiency Report says. This has the potential student savings of $1,000 per student.
Other additions YSU implemented for students are increasing the tuition bulk rate to 17 credit hours at no additional charge for students, and reducing the number of credit hours for most bachelor-degree programs, McNally said.
A problem he cited for the report reflecting poor performance is communication. YSU, for example, is one of the only universities in Ohio that did not employ someone specifically to submit the data, McNally said.
“We did so many different things directly impacting students,” he said. “When we were reporting it to the state, we just weren’t loud enough about them.”
McNally said the question trustees and educators at YSU should be asking themselves is where the university’s priorities lie.
“We are looking for a little guidance as to how high this is on our priority list,” he said. “So many different competing priorities, budgetarily, Higher Learning Commission, IT [internet technology] infrastructure, etc.”
“We need to figure out what our biggest priorities are,” he said. “We only have so many hours in the day and so many people to do it.”