Wednesday, October 25, 2006

 

The Chronicle and Community Colleges

The October 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a special section devoted to community colleges. I'm always happy when the Chronicle takes a break from its all-Harvard-all-the-time default mode and notices the single largest sector of higher education in America. We're so important, we actually rate the 'B' section!

The articles in the supplement vary in quality, and there's definitely something to be said for them as a group. But if you read the whole thing cover-to-cover (I seriously need to get a life), you'll get a very confused view of what community colleges are and should be.

For example, a featured piece, “At a Growing Number of Community Colleges, Fund Raising Is No Longer Optional,” notes (correctly) in passing that

While four-year colleges often solicit donations to pay for new buildings or to endow faculty chairs, community colleges have historically focused on raising money for scholarships.


Since tuition is a fraction of what it costs to educate a student, the net impact of scholarships on our bottom line is negligible.

Several pages later, an opinion piece by a fund-raising consultant (!) titled “Why are Community Colleges so Slow to Jump on the Fund-Raising Bandwagon?” answers its own question by blaming, in order, “inbreeding,” “identity,” “equity,” “introversion (?),” “weak trustees,” “weak presidents,” and “inadequate fundraising staffs.” Notably absent from the list is any discussion of what the fundraising actually achieves for the college. As long as the funds have to go to student scholarships, the net financial gain for the college is not worth the effort (in cold financial terms).

Having been exposed to colleges of all different genres, I can say with confidence that cc's have no monopoly on inbreeding, identity, introversion (?), or weak internal leadership. What we do have a monopoly on is incredibly cheap tuition. Lower tuition means lower value to scholarships. Since most cc's, as a matter of policy, don't raise funds for construction or endowed chairs or operating budgets, the net payoff for us for fundraising is nothing close to what it is for four-year colleges or universities. Ad hominem attacks usually betray a lack of understanding; if you want to understand, look at the incentives.

The confusion doesn't stop there. In terms of curriculum, two articles laud study abroad and honors programs, respectively, suggesting that they convey academic respectability on cc's. A few pages later, a former cc president has an article (“The 4 Lessons that Community Colleges Can Learn from For-Profit Institutions”) suggesting that we drop all that “general education” crap and develop pure employment degrees, just like the incredibly impressive for-profits. So we should be more like four-year colleges, except that we should be less like them. Alrighty then.

(Unlike the author of that piece, I've actually worked as a dean in both a for-profit and a cc. He paints an unrecognizably rosy picture of the for-profits. For one thing, he assumes that all the major for-profits have rigorous dress codes for students. Um, no. Nope. Huh-uh. He also neglects to address the very real pressures to maintain and improve student retention at for-profits; he takes the “employers are the real customers” argument entirely too seriously. In this, as in so many things, an anonymous informant will show us the way: Follow the Money. For-profits are purely tuition-driven, and they behave accordingly. Employers are nice, but students write the checks. In my days at Proprietary U, I received a weekly spreadsheet listing the highest-attrition sections, with instructor names, and with instructions to get rid of instructors who showed up on that list too often. You don't hit your profit targets by dismissing your customers. Maybe if the Chronicle commissioned writers who had actually worked in both settings, it would get more of the details right. But where to find such a person?)

So the problem with cc's is that we're not something else. We're not four-year colleges, and we're not for-profits. Apparently, we're supposed to be both. And charge less than either.

Harumph.

Here's a thought: we're a genre unto ourselves. As implied in the name 'community' college, cc's vary tremendously based on the communities in which they're located. In the more affluent communities, we have a heavier 'transfer' orientation; in the more strapped communities, by and large, we have a more 'vocational' bent. Some cc's have tenure and academic rank and faculty unions; some don't. What we all share is unrealistically cheap tuition, open-door admissions, and close ties to our local communities. We don't spend money on football teams, lavish dorms, climbing walls, or the other late-Roman ornaments that festoon so many four-year campuses. We spend it on teaching, and we're proud of that. To that extent, maybe the other sectors should imitate us!

I'm not actually taking issue with some of the recommendations in the supplement. Regular readers of this blog know that I like Honors programs, I like merit scholarships, and that I've been recommending for some time that cc's start raising money for purposes other than scholarships. (The real danger there, which none of the articles addressed, is that revenue-strapped state and local governments will use the availability of outside funding as an excuse to cut ours. Perhaps one reason cc's foot-drag on fundraising is because we see it as long-term suicide? My cc actually had its funding cut a few years ago when its reserve got “too big.” The incentives were loud and clear. Follow the Money.) And if the Chronicle manages to get some serious discussion going on ways to make cc's both more viable and more valuable, I'm all for it.

A little attention to detail might be nice, though.

Comments:
This seems not unrelated to the funding problems of certain public colleges, as well. Some of my current work involves donor relations for a public college, where we are forced to accept gifts with thousands of strings attached, and where the donor must be courted for years only to receive a pittance, maybe, at the end of it. It's not easy to court wealthy donors for non-Harvardy schools, because the social payoff for them is lower.

It's rather disingenuous to suggest that financially-strapped colleges should just court better and more donors. Donors tend to give for three reasons, none of them related to altruism. They like (1) fancy shindigs where they can schmooze with like-minded and -walleted folks, (2) a lasting gratitude from a prestigious school that may get a less-than-brilliant young relative a thick envelope, and (3) the assurance of everlasting and widespread glory for their names. Community colleges and underfunded publics simply can't shell out for lavish banquets and vast PR about donations, so they end up sinking countless hours of face-time into making donors feel appreciated and needed.

Whatever donor-courting non-Harvardy schools do has to get outside this big-bucks model and focus on better state support and a wide variety of local donors who may not be multi-millionaires.
 
Why don't you write a response article to the Chronicle (anonymously, of course :-) - and since that's not unusual for the Chronicle . . . ).

It's not that your audience would be bigger than your blog's, but I hear that they pay quite well.
 
Just a stupid question from someone on the other side of the Atlantic ocean: How much money do CCs spend per student? And how much is tuition? (Number of zeros in each figure would be sufficient, I guess.)
AlthoughI am rather far away, I always enjoy your blog! Thanks!
 
I think in the area of fund-raising the community colleges should take a page from certain state schools. Don't raise money yourself...create a foundation to raise money for the benefit of the college. That way the cc has no reserve to tempt legislators to cut funding. Forget the scholarships and go for expensive equipment and facilities needed to train nurses.

Then take a page from the private universities and hit up your alumni. Surely some multi-millionaire once took a class during the summer to increase his GPA at Ivy U or some big name athlete rounded out his credits with you. A good professional prospect researcher could unearth a gold mine.

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
 
I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "for-profits". Could you give a list of some of them, so I can orient myself?
 
what does it cost to educate a student? Where does the money go?
 
It's impossible to break it down for a single student, since some programs cost much more than others. On the aggregate level, though, tuition is about 45% of our budget. So if we were to charge the students the full cost of educating them, we'd have to more-than-double the tuition, all else remaining equal.
 
Can i assume that since you're a CC most of the 'extra' fancy stuff has been stripped out? Interesting. With what a credit hour costs I would have thought that tuition did more to cover the gap. What would the school look like if it was tuition based? Obviously money would only be spent direct education and extras that put asses in seats. I imagine that grade inflation and not upsetting students would become more of an issue.
 
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