Task force urges Ohio colleges to cut costs

The average Ohio college graduate leaves school with about $29,000 in student loan debt — the 11th-highest average in the nation.

The Ohio Task Force on Affordability and Efficiency, a group created by Gov. John Kasich in February, released a report Thursday that highlights ways public colleges and universities can reduce expenses aimed at reducing that figure.

The report recommends a wide range of areas where schools can cut costs: from textbooks and privatizing assets, to collaboration between schools to take advantage of purchasing power.

“The intent of this recommendation should be unmistakable: Savings should be redirected to have a clear and direct benefit on students, and primarily in the form of making college more affordable,” the task force says in its report.

In addition, the report list best practices around the state. For instance, Ohio State University outsourced its parking operation in 2013, receiving a $483 million up-front payment for the 50-year deal. The report notes some of those funds will go toward scholarships.

More than tuition

The average cost of tuition at an Ohio university is $10,100 — 14 percent higher than the national average. Yet that doesn’t include all costs. At most local universities, students pay more than $1,000 for books and supplies, including $1,250 at Miami University and $1,008 at Wright State University, accoording to the U.S. Department of Education.

The task force wants colleges to tackle those cost as well.

The University of Cincinnati’s use of negotiators to lower the price of textbooks is listed as a model for other schools. The report says that the university saves the average students around $100 per course. UC students paid, collectively, around $500,000 less than the list price for electronic materials this semester.

Local colleges and universities say they have already reduced cost in some of the suggested areas.

“Sinclair realized over $30 million in cost savings through efficiencies over the past several years,” said Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College.

The task force will not force schools to cut costs, but state officials say the legislature will take a hard look at the findings.

“We (the legislature) are going to start with the low-hanging fruit, or biggest bangs for your buck, probably act on those things first,” said Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, a member of the task force.

Duffey said that includes improved academic advising, and getting students to take more credit hours.

“The most efficient way to reduce cost is for students to graduate on time. They can save 30 percent, by taking 18 (credit) hours instead of 15,” said Bruce Johnson, CEO of the Inter-University Council of Ohio. “If students go five years instead of four, they lose about $60,000 in opportunity cost.”

Tackling ‘bloat’

At Ohio public colleges and universities, 60 percent of expenses go toward employee salaries and benefits — something the task force hopes to bring down.

An investigation last month by this newspaper found that payroll at Ohio universities grew by nearly $1.4 billion over the past decade to $4.6 billion in 2013.

Aside from recommending ways to cut costs, institutions are required to complete efficiency reviews by July 2016. That includes producing reports on everything from “cost drivers,” building optimization and administrative productivity.

School officials say those reports aren’t free. Indeed, while reporting on “bloat” last month, this newspaper was told by a handful of high-ranking university officials that government reporting requirements and regulation play a role in increased payroll.

“As we have a wide variety of regulations, most of which are totally appropriate, we find there are layers of oversight that we’re required to have to be able to comply with those regulations in our laboratory research or athletic compliance,” Ohio State University President Michael Drake said during a visit to this newspaper in August.

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