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.