Daniels Is Proving Just How Bad Colleges (and People) Are at Controlling Costs

Mitch Daniels took over the presidency of Purdue University in 2013. They have yet to have a tuition increase on his watch. That, quite frankly, is remarkable in the world of higher ed and, perhaps, even unimaginable in a world in which annual tuition increases are a given. For more details, I refer you to this Inside Higher Ed story.

I’m particularly fond of the Daniels story because he’s proving me right. And everyone likes to be proved right.

Since becoming intimately familiar with the world of higher ed, when preparing for and then occupying the presidency of a college, I’ve contended that annual increases in the cost of a college education were not inevitable, as many claim, but were, in part, the product of gross mismanagement, namely, the pathetic inability of college trustees, administrators, and faculty to control their costs. Stated differently, higher ed is smothering in waste, inefficiencies, and extravagant spending.

They get away with it because students and their parents are willing to pay the ever-rising prices, in tuition, fees, and room and board, and are willing to go into debt to finance these purchases. Moreover, thanks in part to the cartel called the accreditation system, the competition isn’t there to constrain price increases, as it is in many other industries. But that doesn’t make it right or without consequences.

One of the consequences is student-loan debt, which is now in the neighborhood of $4 trillion. Not that most college trustees, administrators, and faculty care. They don’t. If they did, Daniels would have more company in his campaign against out-of-control spending. And Purdue wouldn’t be alone in holding the line on tuition increases for seven straight years.

Colleges and universities mismanage resources on so many levels. But, of course, they’re not alone. Their bad habits are shared by other nonprofits and governmental agencies — organizations that are not accountable to investors. But it’s not that all for-profit organizations excel in this regard. They don’t. Many of them do a poor job of controlling expenses, too. But, overall, they do a far superior job than their nonprofit relatives.

It will be harder for other colleges and universities to peddle their excuses now that Daniels and Purdue have shined the spotlight on them. Yet I don’t expect much to change for most institutions. They’ll continue to increase prices every year.

There’s only one thing that will bring about change, and that’s competition and consumer awareness. If and when students stop enrolling because there are better values to be had elsewhere, then and only then will boards of trustees hire administrators with the skills and guts to act in the best interests of the students.

But there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here, Vera, for what we see in the world of higher ed and organizations generally, we also see play out in the world of household finances. Continue reading

Students Use Your Money to Invest in Cryptocurrencies

I have issues with our federal student loan program. But this wasn’t one of them. Until now that is.

From Investopedia:

According to a study by The Student Loan Report, over one-fifth of current university students with student loan debt indicated that they used their student loan money to invest in digital currency such as bitcoin.

The student loan news and information website found that 21.2% of the 1,000 students they surveyed indicated that they used their borrowed cash to gamble on the highly volatile digital currency market. While school administrators may look down upon the practice of using borrowed funds for non-school expenses, Student Loan Report indicates that there are currently no rules against it. College students are able to use loans for “living expenses,” a flexible category that covers a wide range of potential necessities.

I wonder if any of these risk takers will be unable to complete their studies because of their investment losses. Probably, but we may never know.

All of these student loans are funded by money borrowed by your federal government. In other words, you, the taxpayers, are on the hook to repay those borrowed funds if the student-borrowers fail to repay their student-loans. Not surprisingly, student-loans have a high default rate, meaning the lender (the U.S. Government) has to absorb the losses. It appears those losses may be increasing due, in part, from the risky investments made by the students in cryptocurrencies.

It will be interesting what effect, if any, stories like this one have on the student loan program. The main beneficiary of the program is the colleges, who would be compelled, without the program, to run more efficient operations and keep tuition low. In other words, the student-loan program is an indirect subsidy of the colleges.

There are better ways to assist needy students with a college education. Yet, at this time, I haven’t seen any political support for pursuing any of them. So it looks like taxpayer money will continue to be used for dubious purposes.

Look for the Tailwinds

I never fully appreciated the impact of tailwinds and headwinds until I started cycling. I couldn’t believe the difference they make. Even when the winds are light, a tailwind does wonders. I wish I’d better understood this phenomenon earlier in life — not with respect to cycling, but with respect to life generally.

Recently, I read some comments by Warren Buffett about tailwinds and headwinds. Buffett stressed the importance of being in a business where tailwinds prevail.

“There are some businesses that are inherently far more opportunity than others,” he said. “So you want to give a lot of thought to which train you’re getting on.” It’s important to be “in businesses where tailwinds prevail rather than headwinds,” he added.

Take Mr. Buffett’s advice seriously, Vera. It will make life so much easier.

Twice in my life I joined businesses with headwinds: once with a chemical company and once with a small private college.

It’s not that either experience was bad. It’s just that there were limited opportunities. And the job was so much harder than it needed to be.

From an employment perspective, the chemical industry had been contracting for quite some time (still is). Technology, competition, demographics, globalization and commoditization had taken a heavy toll. It’s also a capital intensive business, which presents its own challenges, especially in this era of high-margin, capital-light businesses. In short, it’s an industry with headwinds, particularly with respect to employment and career opportunities.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying successful career there. It just means there are industries with far more opportunity. And which are more exciting and dynamic. Why deal with headwinds if you can avoid them? (Of course, if you’re a chemical engineer, perhaps it’s the right place to be.)

The headwinds at the college were even stiffer. The 20th century was the century of colleges; the 21st is the century of universities. For a myriad of reasons, the vast majority of students want to attend a university, not a small college, especially one that is nestled in a rural community far from centers of commerce and industry.

Small, under-resourced colleges have a tough go of it these days. Most are struggling financially. There’s never enough money. Many are struggling academically, too.

Maintenance ends up being deferred. Salaries can’t keep pace with wealthier institutions and research universities, and it’s tough to compete for the best talent. The colleges have a hard time competing for the strongest academic students, too. It’s a constant struggle.

Again, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a satisfying career there. But it does mean the opportunities will be limited. And it means the environment is one of scarcity and not abundance.

Why deal with such headwinds? Why not go where tailwinds prevail?

One of my faults (there are many) is that I’m a sucker for a challenge. It’s a fault because it makes life harder than it needs to be. Looking back, I’m convinced I’d had been much better off looking for tailwinds instead of being attracted to headwinds, even though, from a career standpoint, things worked out pretty well for me. But perhaps not as well as they would have if I’d ridden more with tailwinds.

Don’t make the same mistake, Vera. Life is hard enough. Strive to ride with the wind, not against it. It will make the ride so much easier.

Why I No Longer Contribute to Most Nonprofits

For most of my life, I thought of nonprofits as charitable institutions. I learned I was wrong. Later, I stopped writing checks to most of them.

My eyes were first opened to the nonprofit world when, as CEO of a large corporation in Philadelphia, I served on a United Way committee. United Way is the conduit through which corporations and individuals fund local nonprofits, which are usually billed as charitable organizations (whether or not they truly are). That was my first glimpse behind the nonprofit world’s curtain. Here is what I found: Continue reading