Thursday, October 06, 2005


Why We're Cheaper

There’s a piece in IHE today suggesting that students who choose community colleges for academic (as opposed to vocational) majors do so because cc’s are cheaper than four-year schools.

Well, yeah.

But why are we cheaper? What’s our secret? Should four-year schools imitate us?

Several factors:

- Heavier courseloads for full-time faculty, without higher salaries. 30 credits per year is standard, as opposed to 18-24 for lower-tier four-year schools, and less than that as you go higher on the totem pole. Faculty tolerate the higher loads because the research expectations are correspondingly lower. We get the same teaching load from two professors that neighboring colleges get from three or four. Multiply that out, and the savings are substantial.

- We don’t do dorms, or the student life activities that go with dorms. We have a small student life office, but the menu of activities doesn’t even try to approach that of a residential campus. Since most of our students have outside jobs for significant numbers of hours, attendance at these functions doesn’t justify having that many.

- A greater percentage of classes taught by adjuncts (although the lower-tier four year schools are rapidly closing the gap!). Since adjuncts are cheaper, and we use more of them, we save there.

- Athletic programs carry a much lower profile here, and we don’t do scholarships or bidding wars.

- Fewer ‘boutique’ majors. While it’s true that we lose money on some programs (i.e. nursing), we don’t generally carry majors that don’t generate enrollments.

- Administrative thinness. I’m constantly amazed when I visit nearby four-year schools at the layers of administration. For example, at my cc, we don’t have a provost, and there’s no such thing as an associate dean (even though I could use one!).

- Less library/lab overhead. Since we aren’t focused on research, we don’t have to support the huge library collection that a four-year school would. We also don’t need the research labs that require foreign t.a.’s that require immigration paperwork that require full-time staff...

- More funding sources. Typical four-year state colleges rely on the state and tuition. We rely on the state, the county, and tuition. Having that extra source is nice, especially when the state is in a fiscal crunch (which is, more or less, the normal state of things). On the down side, we don’t have the level of alumni giving that four-year schools have, since our grads who transfer usually donate to the college that granted their highest degree. There’s room for growth here.

- Open-door admissions. Since we aren’t selective, we don’t need staff to make decisions on which students to accept. Our Admissions office is shockingly small for a college of our size, yet it’s able to get the job done.

There are more (less travel funding, fewer high-tech amenities, etc.), but these are the ones that leap to mind immediately. Many of these are contingent on our mission remaining tightly focused. For example, if we were to start teaching third and fourth-year courses, we’d have to beef up our library and labs, and reduce teaching loads; the combination would be a budget-buster. We’re cheaper than the four-year schools not because we’re more honest or clever, but because we’re more focused. A kid who does the first two years with us, and the next two years with a four-year school, saves a chunk of money without sacrificing much, since intro courses at four-year schools are usually farmed out to t.a.’s or adjuncts anyway. By the time the extra resources matter, the kid has transferred.

In other words, while I think cc’s occupy a necessary niche and will continue to, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to judge four-year schools against our tuition. They have costs that we don’t, simply by virtue of the different mission. While we’ll never compete with Stanford, I think we stack up pretty well against the first two years at Eastern Teachers College State. That will remain true as long as we don't try to stack up against the last two years.

I agree with you. In my state the big state U's are filled to overflowing. So the CCs are getting lots of attention. I think it's just a matter of time before our little CC will be offering 4 yr degrees. The CC model works because we are focused on teaching. I think the state-funded U. model is obsolete. It cannot continue in its present course. I think most states will go to a 2-tier system: research U's for those who don't care to teach (much) and then teaching U's. Kind of like UCal vs. Cal State system.
Besides costs, style of teaching also makes me like my local CC better. My local CC tends to do more traditional type of instruction (i.e., lecture + HW) while my local univ tends to employ some 'newer' methods (like, learning through student discovery, but the traditional instruction side is minimal.) Maybe that is the weird situation in the area I live in currently.

I finished my degrees overseas and the programs were very traditional, kind of like the local CC style; we just had to do lots of reading/writing/presentations, besides lectures.

The local univ (a lower tier, almost brand new state univ, I must say) here does not really provide enough instructional support. Their approach is very unconventional.
I wonder how many faculty burn out quickly at CCs?? I just couldn't handle the teaching load. I now teach fewer and smaller classes, make more money, get more benefits, and, frankly, don't have to deal with as many problem students. I recognize the importance of CCs, but I just couldn't do it without compromising either the quality of my classes or the quality of my life outside of work.
I think the burnout is quite high. We've lost several good faculty to the CC down the road, which gave them a shorter commute. With our annoyingly FLAT admin structure, EVERYTHING flows to the faculty. We really get swamped with committees, meetings, reports etc. I also agree about the troubled students. About 2/3 of all our incoming students test into prep (mostly math, although almost 1/2 also test into prep English). The homeschoolers either write really well or really terribly. As a low ranking admin member I spend much of my time coordinating the prep classes. It can be a real pain. Summers are a good time to recharge but the burnout thing is definitely a factor.
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