Swickard column: Sutton’s Law goes to college

Willie Sutton inspired a law
© 2016 Michael Swickard, Ph.D.  “Why do you rob banks?” asked Mitch Ohnstad. “Because that’s where the money is,” said Willie Sutton.
            A noted bank robber from the Twentieth Century is used by medical students as a way of making a quicker diagnosis. Rather than think of all that might be wrong with a patient, they go directly to the most likely diagnosis which has been dubbed, “Sutton’s Law.”
            We are seeing Sutton’s Law in our New Mexico institutions of higher learning when it comes to budget problems. Money is tight. That normally should trigger soul-searching and budget searching to see what could be cut. Being short on money is the time to look at priorities and adjust programs accordingly.
            Instead, using Sutton’s Law, colleges only raise tuition “because that is where the money is.”
            In the 1990s I did a Ph.D. at New Mexico State University. The tuition and fees when I started were under $600 a semester. Currently they are $4,000 a semester and there are calls by the NMSU administration to raise tuition because of budget woes.
            As to inflation, $600 in 1994 would be $960 today. But NMSU’s tuition is $4,000 meaning tuition has risen more than four times the rate of inflation. Ignoring economics, NMSU again and again increased tuition and then had a surprised look on their faces when enrollment dropped.
            I have written about this repeatedly over the last twenty years as the cost of a college education in New Mexico increased rather than NMSU cutting programs and becoming leaner. It’s Sutton Law, increasing tuition is where the money is.
            I enjoyed my time at college and went to college willingly, in fact eagerly. The education I received was very good for what I wanted and I am satisfied that my time was well spent. But it was spent at $600 a semester and I am tightly wound so I didn’t stay long.
            The other day I was speaking to a very bright young person. We were discussing educational options. I confessed to this potential college student that am not sure I would go to NMSU at $4,000 a semester and then buy books and all the other costs. Might not.
            The question is: could I self-educate in some fields instead of sitting for years in classes? Are there other things I could do productively to earn an income that would satisfy me?
            Now in degree-requiring fields you have to go college to get a job. The question is: which colleges can give you the required credentials most economically? Colleges and universities are up against several trends which might spell the end of higher education as we have known it.
            There are three issues that our higher education administration apparently does not want to address: first, most college students assume a job will follow. Programs that do not have a vibrant job market are not being phased out to the detriment of students.
            Secondly, college students are charged the same for high value classes as for low value classes. In some programs the professors are paid less than $30,000 a year while some professors in Engineering make six figure salaries. There is no adjustment in the cost of classes.
            Finally, the sunk cost of bricks and mortar in the physical plants cause our institutions of higher learning to lean toward using those physical plants since they have to pay for them regardless of if they are useful for the future of students.
It asks the question: does the administration of NMSU have a fiduciary relationship with the students or their employees? It can only be one. If it was financially appropriate to fire a quarter of all NMSU employees, could the administration do so or would the students be asked to cover the costs to no gain for them?
Those are tough questions in this changing world. It is like NMSU football which I touched on recently. I still intend to buy tickets to the football games whether they are D1 or not. I will be at their games cheering.
            Are they going to continue selling losses because “that’s where the money is?” If they do, they will eventually lose the entire football program and probably look surprised.



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