Friday, July 15, 2005

 

Brinksmanship, or Shooting the Hostage

There’s a scene in the movie Speed in which cop Jeff Daniels tries to teach cop Keanu Reeves how to handle a hostage situation. Keanu Reeves suggests shooting the hostage to simplify the situation (“isolate a variable,” as they said in algebra class). Jeff Daniels, horrified, gives up.

In response to my rant about how the nursing program is bleeding us dry, some folks emailed to suggest taking the Nursing program (or some other high-cost, high-profile, much-loved program) hostage. Loudly proclaim that, in the absence of a serious influx of cash from the state or the county, the beloved program dies. Sort of like when high schools in the Midwest threaten first to eliminate football.

Leaving aside the ethical issue (I actually think there’s nothing unethical about asking for support for programs that serve the public, or even for outlining the consequences of a lack of support), my fear is that the county or state would choose simply to shoot the hostage.

Community colleges (and most of the lower-tier, non-flagship state colleges) are in a tricky position. We provide badly needed services in an era in which the concept of a ‘public good’ has almost vanished, but our very usefulness and accessibility hurt our reputation (and therefore our ability to raise funds from other sources). Groucho Marx’ line about never joining a club that would accept him as a member has obvious implications for the public image of an open-admissions school. Yet, if we were to try to ‘raise our academic profile’ by appealing to the snootier sorts, we’d lose our reason to exist.

For reasons known only to them, big philanthropists prefer to give to organizations that don’t need it. Success breeds success, and they like to be associated with ‘excellence.’ Since we’re resolutely open to all comers, we don’t have the cachet of exclusivity. Since we focus on teaching, we don’t have the cachet of huge research grants or Nobel prize winners on the faculty. (At UC Berkeley, I once saw a parking space near a science building with a sign saying “Nobel Prize Winners Only.” Puh-leeze.) Our relative lack of cachet drives the philanthropists to the flagship state universities or the Ivies, which don’t need it.

(Thorstein Veblen nailed this over 100 years ago, in The Theory of the Leisure Class. He argued that people show wealth and power through ‘honorific waste,’ or what he also called ‘conspicuous consumption.’ Horses are higher-status pets than dogs because horses are both useless and costly to maintain. Therefore, only the wealthy can afford them. Ties convey status because you can’t work with your hands while wearing a tie. To my mind, this is still the single best description of the appeal of SUV’s -- their excess is precisely their appeal. It also explains why universities with large philosophy departments are more prestigious than community colleges with large nursing or criminal justice programs.)

Since we can’t raise money with philanthropy, we’re left to raise money by raising tuition, (which has natural limits, esp. with our population) or by pleading poverty to the county and state. Having done that for several decades now, we’ve fallen victim to the ‘boy who cried wolf’ syndrome. At this point, even when the wolf is real, we get tuned out.

Sometimes we’ve taken the opposite tack, making an ‘economic development’ argument, but economic development funding is devilishly cyclical, and we’re tenure-based. We can’t afford to pay full freight during the down cycles.

If the public were more attuned to the value of community colleges, the hostage strategy might work. But it isn’t, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Faced with the choice between higher taxes and pulling a Keanu, I think the public would shoot the hostage.

Comments:
Dean Dad, you've got too many balls you're trying to keep in the air at once. By my count, you're trying to fulfill all of these conditions at the same time:

1) Field Parity: tuition costs should not depend on choice of major

2) Comprehensiveness: All majors should be available to all students

3) Open Access: Possession of certain qualifications by a student (GPA, family wealth, exceptional test scores, completion of qualifying internships, etc.) should have no effect on whether a student can attend, or on what major they can study

4) Low Tuition: No student should, realistically, be to poor to pay for school out of his or her own pocket

5) Need Sufficiency: Your school should be able to produce as many graduates as the local workforce can absorb, but ideally not more than that

6) No Indebtedness: Students who cannot get loans (due to credit unworthiness or cultural issues with debt) should not be disadvantaged

So, why haven't you offered a goldsmithing major? It's a real job--I have a relative who's a goldsmith, in fact--and if money really shouldn't be an object....

OK, I'm joking. But I'm trying to make a serious point. The supply of money that the taxpayers can give to community colleges is not infinite. So, there has to be some way of limiting costs in a way that allows as many people as possible to complete "useful" degrees. You can't do it while holding on to all six principles above, though--ya gotta pick a subset.

High-tuition comprehensive schools do it one way: charge more than the cost of providing the service to most students, then use the excess to fund a small coterie of individuals who buy their way in by other means (such as academic scholarships). That violates some of your principles.

Specialty schools do it another way: by concentrating on a few majors, with fairly specific payoffs, they can pick and choose among their applicants, and also charge higher tuition than they would otherwise get for enhanced access to the chosen career.

If you want to keep tuition low and access open (so that as many students as want to can try the "expensive" majors), you will have to decide that some majors are too costly for you to offer. If you choose to get more selective for some majors, which will help you attract extramural funding, you must give up the open access requirement. And so on.

As far as nursing, specifically, is concerned, perhaps you could try something my old school did. We had a "six year biomed" major, where students would earn a B.S. in two years, and be automatically accepted into the local med school if they had a certain GPA in our program. So, they'd be M.D.'s six years out of high school. The kicker was, of course, that the workload was ferocious and you had to maintain at least a given (fairly high) GPA: if you didn't, you dropped out of the program and became a normal Biology major. Given those conditions, I bet a local hospital could be talked into automatically accepting your newly minted LPN's. They might also enter into a training partnership with you, subsidizing your higher costs in exchange for first crack at your graduates.
 
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