Mike Barnhill replies to column taking him to task on folly of 'national averages'

The other day I took Mike Barnhill to task for his comments about using national averages for making decisions about the proper level of funding for the University of Alaska.

Here is his response:


Yesterday I made comparisons using data the university provided (attached) and publicly available data from these websites: www.nces.ed.gov/ipeds and http://www.sheeo.org/projects/shef-—-state-higher-education-finance

I frequently use national data, whether it’s university costs, Medicaid costs, specific healthcare procedure costs, retiree costs, etc, because it provides a context. In my 20 years with the state, I have been called upon to make and implement recommendations in very difficult situations. I try to use data as much as possible. I think it’s important to the analysis. I understand that there are differences between Alaska and other states, but that should not deter use of comparative national data for analytical purposes.

I acknowledge that there are any number of differences between all of the land grant universities on the list. Dr. Johnson pointed some of those out, and I understand and acknowledge that there are differences. The comparisons nevertheless remain important, if only to show that it is possible for land grant universities to survive and thrive with less state funding. I didn’t mention it yesterday, but obviously it is possible for a higher education institution to survive and thrive without any state funding or land grant at all. Or without a Phil Knight, for that matter.

Can there be a realistic vision for a UA that is a vibrant, thriving, cost-effective, and popular university with less state funding? I think there can. I am impressed with Dr. Johnson’s concern for the number of Alaska high school graduates who do not pursue higher education at all (lowest % in the country). The market and need is there—what we need is the vision, the plan and the successful execution of the plan. While I understand the reluctance to compare Alaska to the lower 48, I am confident that in the lower 48 there are many examples of institutions that created a plan and successfully implemented a value proposition for higher education that attracted both students and non-state funding. Can we learn from those examples? Can we actually replicate it here? I think the answer to both questions is yes.

With respect to comparisons within the UA system, I used data UA provided. See attached. It is a fact that UAF is the high cost campus within the system. In my conversation with Dr. Johnson yesterday, he provided some information as to why that is the case. I appreciated the information and the conversation. I accept the clarification that administration costs for community campuses are not reflected in the attached. I believe that if such costs were allocated to each community campus, UAF would still remain the high cost/FTE campus. By far.

In my present role, I have an obligation to point out that UAF is relatively expensive and other campuses including UAA are much less so. There are a number of reasons why this is so, but the fact remains there are cost-effective and less cost-effective means to deliver post-secondary education in Alaska.

We used a 44% multiplier over the national median as reported in the SHEF data to come up with an $11,000/FTE state funding contribution. I believe that multiplier accommodates differences for increased Alaska expenses. The paper you attached mentions a variety of cost differentials, and on p. 9 the need for a 1.3x or 30% multiplier in this context. I agree. Our recognition of higher costs in Alaska is the reason why we went with 44% or a 1.44x multiplier.

I think the increased costs at UAF v UAA include reasons in addition to the fact that Alaska or Fairbanks is more expensive than elsewhere. I think an important issue has to do with scale and the difficulty of attracting students to Fairbanks. In this regard, UAF and UAA appear to be in competition with each other for similar programs. This scale issue is also reflected in the paper you sent, pp. 9-10. For what it’s worth, the data shows UAF has better retention and better grad rates than UAA.

I am not making a recommendation on how to implement the proposed UA budget. I am pointing out facts that I think are important to the discussion. And I know you will be there to correct me every step of the way.

This is an incredibly difficult process, and I acknowledge the disruption and the anger. This budget impacts all Alaskans, all communities, all government funded entities. While I understand that you disagree with the ADN editorial board opinion from last weekend, I don’t. We have reached the point where all elements of state spending are in a zero sum game with the PFD, other spending, different cuts, or new revenues.

The current fiscal situation forces an inquiry into cost-drivers. Regardless of whether something else gets reduced to restore UA funding, or new revenues are put on the table to restore UA funding, we need to have the incredibly difficult conversation about the future of higher education in Alaska and whether the status quo should persist.

Neither of us are going to shrink from this debate. I love this state and the vision of a sustainable and thriving Alaska. And, I know you do too. There are starkly different ideas of how to get there. In recognition of that, I am willing to participate in further conversation with you, Dr. Johnson and UA stakeholders. Today I spent 90 minutes before Alaska Municipal League. I explained the position of the governor on issues related to the municipal community. I listened and agreed to carry messages back to the Governor. I am willing to do the same here.

Dermot, while some of your words below sting, I recognize that you (and a quite a few others) have earned and serve in the role of Alaska’s (sometimes curmudgeonly) elders and have an important role in this discussion. I doubt there is much I can say that you will agree with. I am still willing to be in discussion with you and others on this incredibly important matter. I am willing to listen.

Mike B.

Dermot Cole14 Comments