Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Bad Idea in the Bay State
According to this article in the Boston Globe, Gov. Patrick is considering a plan to make community colleges in Massachusetts tuition-free by 2015. As appealing as the idea is at first glance, I have to recommend against it.
First, I'll grant its obvious appeal. A cc without tuition will make it easier for students to graduate without major debt. (There would still be the costs of textbooks, activity fees, transportation, and the opportunity cost of potential work hours lost to class time and homework.) When students have to work a tremendous number of hours every week to pay for school, the time they can devote to studying is crunched. Many cc students come from modest income backgrounds, so even low tuition can be a real hardship. And the prospect of major debt is a real disincentive to enrolling, or to continuing to the four-year level. No argument on any of those points.
All of that said, though, I think the program would unfold as a slow-motion disaster.
The public K-12 system in Massachusetts, which doesn't charge tuition, has been reduced (in some districts) to charging school bus fees to stay afloat. If that's what full reliance on government funding brings you, I shudder to imagine the long-term impact on colleges if they drop tuition. The next time a tax revolt rolls around, I'd expect some demagogue to propose some seductively sweeping quick-fix across-the-board budget cuts that would absolutely eviscerate higher ed. (See TABOR, Prop. 13, etc.) Since the same people who lead tax revolts are also the law-and-order folk, you know they wouldn't cut police or prisons to make up for lost revenue; higher ed would be a sitting duck. We've seen that happen in enough states by now that you'd think we'd know better.
At least with tuition, there's an independent revenue stream. Yes, a too-high tuition level will freeze some people out, but a too-low (or nonexistent) tuition level will freeze everybody out when programs or even campuses are eliminated for lack of funding. What would almost certainly happen – based on what I've seen with existing programs in Nursing, which are terrible money-losers for cc's – would be long waitlists and/or lotteries to allocate seats. (Alternately, in the chalk-and-talk areas, you could go to all 300-student lectures with scantron tests. The 'learning outcomes' of that approach are depressingly predictable.) Excess demand coupled with a complete absence of a price mechanism will lead to all manner of silliness.
(I saw an example of that in the early 90's, when I briefly lived in Berkeley. Berkeley still had rent control at that point. Apartments were available at reasonable rents, but 'key money' or 'finder's fees' often reached four figures. Water finds its own level, one way or another.)
On a state level, replacing tuition with direct state aid would, all else being equal, replace federal money (Pell grants) with state money. Why a state would voluntarily leave free money on the table, I don't know. I imagine the taxpayers of Massachusetts – a long-suffering lot already – would find that one hard to swallow.
There's also the delicate issue of student attitudes. I work with some folks who have taught in systems in decades past, where tuition was either free or so low as to be effectively free. They've shared horror stories of students adding and dropping boatloads of classes with impunity, since it didn't cost them anything. 'Behavioral economists' like to talk about the 'sunk cost fallacy,' which is the habit of mind that makes us likelier to attend a concert for which we've bought tickets than to attend one for which we were given tickets, since having bought the tickets, we think of non-attendance as a financial loss. It's mathematically false, but psychologically true. I suspect the same holds true for tuition. Putting up some money – and it doesn't have to be much – creates a psychological pull that a true freebie doesn't.
Besides, free tuition would encourage the academic equivalent of the welfare queen, the dreaded “perpetual student.” These have mostly disappeared over the last few decades, but would make a quick comeback under this system, especially during recessions, when the opportunity costs are lower.
I'd also worry about any system that completely decouples funding levels from enrollment levels. (That might or might not happen, depending on the details of implementation.) Under that system, when the inevitable crunch hits, the incentive for a struggling college would be to get as student-hostile as possible to get its costs down to its aid level. This is easier than you'd think. Just use the DMV as the model for any student contacts, skimp on web platform maintenance, close off the occasional student parking lot, run too-few sections of required classes, and voila! This strikes me as a horrible outcome.
My suggestion to Gov. Patrick, if he wants to improve college access and is willing to pony up some money to do it, is to establish some sort of scholarship program in which the renewal of a student's scholarship is contingent on a given GPA (or some other easily tracked measure of success). To the college, tuition is tuition, whether it comes from the state or the student, so the college's incentives would be right. This approach would get around the issue of subsidizing slackers, since students who aren't academically serious would lose their scholarships. It would be much cheaper for the state than eliminating tuition altogether, and it would keep in place the infrastructure of tuition-charging to turn to when the next recession hits. Hardworking students from modest backgrounds would get the full benefit of a functioning college, which they probably wouldn't under an 'everybody free' system. Improve direct operating aid to the cc's a bit to get the rate of tuition increase under control, by all means, but don't get rid of tuition altogether. It serves too many purposes, and would leave colleges grotesquely vulnerable to the next recession or shift in the political winds.
It isn't just the tuition that is the problem, it is the lack of facilities needed for all of the students. Where will they all go? My CC just built a new campus a couple of years ago and it is already bursting at the seams with students.
Won't making Associates degrees pretty much mandatory, which they will be because now they will be "free", make them as devalued as the high school diploma currently is? CC's are already joked about as the 13th grade and seen as extensions of the local high schools for low achieving students.
As for career students, this is already a problem because the tuition is so cheap that people can go to school for a long time without incurring much debt. I met so many people in their fourth or fifth year at my CC who did not have outside jobs (or had a very "part-time" job) and just kept going to school without ever earning a degree in anything. They were there full-time and played the system to its fullest. Won't this situation be exacerbated when school is free? Whatever GPA they put as the cut off will be so low anyway that it will be near impossible to fail out. With grade inflation as it is, it is rare to get less than an A- in a course with little work involved and as long as you showed up half the time. B's are the new D's and the GPA cut off would probably be 2.0 or 2.5.
On a side note, I actually met Deval at one of the speeches he gave on my campus last year during the election. All he talked about was handing out this and that for free but he never said where the money was going to come from to pay for all of these wonderful services. As all the people in the room clapped and smiled and talked about how wonderful he was, I resolved that I was not going to vote for him. Once I've finished school here in Massachusetts I don't plan on staying here. New Hampshire sounds like a nice state to me. "Live free or die." Sorry if I went on too long this just gets me all riled up.
Anonymous has a great post and deserves the degree earned. We owe it to that student to make the value of that degree worth earning.
That said, I don't think free tuition has to be "open access" -- and there is something to be said for the notion that students knowing that there is a chance to go to college will create an incentive to make high school count.
I also think you could place limits on annual access to the system: that each student had X# of credits in the system for add-drop, and could not utilize the system beyond that.
One of the things that I think is so sad about this discussion is that if misplaced federal priorities were not driving the states into debt, it would be possible to pour money into education that is otherwise being spent on military hardware. Instead we are having arguments with Russia about putting those stupid Star Wars systems in Turkey.
So I applaud the governor's idea, and also recognize that adjusting one piece of the system could produce great difficulties, as Dean Dad and the commenters point out.
Now, this could lead to grade inflation, but in my 11 years at Big State U, I've not seen it. And I've failed my share of grad students who get tuition reimbursement. For motivated students, its an extra incentive. And for the hopeless, it pushes them OUT of the programs for which they are ill-suited.
I think it's a win-win all aroudn.
My hunch is that the growth of high school in community college is an important factor in the financial troubles faced by CCs in WA.
At the college where I used to work, one of our locations seemed to be 80% high school students, at least during the day. There's something entirely wrong with that, as far as I'm concerned.
They started charging tuition around the time I was taking cc classes as a senior, but the per-course tuition was initially so low then that it was less than the lab fees etc, that they had resorted to previously. UC still had no official tuition, but had tons of fees.
A simplified model: Decreased funding -> increased adjuncting/grad student instructors -> rehirings depend on student evals -> student evals depend on their grades.
However, my experience does not show (nor does the research indicate) that rehiring depends on student evals and evals depends on grades. Even in the Right-to-Work states where people can be let go for just about anything, Student Evals have never been the end-all, be-all for faculty rehiring determinations. The school attorneys make sure that we have multiple evaluation tools before not offering another contract, much like we should use multiple evaluations for our students.
Likewise, it seems to me that students tend to base their opinions on many other factors besides their final grade, which they don’t know when they complete the Student Evaluation of the course before the term ends. They want dignity in the classroom, respect, the right to be heard and share ideas. They want their instructors to be proficient in the subject area and the media they use. Students want to be treated fairly, regardless if the tests are difficult or not. Basically, students want us to follow the Golden Rule in the classroom.
I haven't seen much of the enrollment problems described though; and the welfare queen problem is dealt with by limiting, in time, the length you're allowed to get government funding for your studies.
Student evals don't count for squat in my institutions P&T's games. In fact, when I was a baby prof, my colleagues and I quickly learned that winning the "Outstanding Teaching Award" as an Assistant Prof was the kiss-of-death when it came to tenure (The powers that be would read that as the winner cared more about teaching than research--and this is a RESEARCH institution.)
So, given the culture of my institution, student evals don't have much impact on teaching behavior. Consenquently, any pressure towards grade inflation in the reimbursement game is mitigated by the realties of P&T.
The small private schools have become hugely popular, even in the poorest neighborhoods where you can see the names 'Cambridge school', and 'Oxford school' on hand-scrawled signs (!)
This is an extreme case, of course. But one thing appears pretty universal - The distance between a populist politician's dialogue and the actual result is always large, and depressing.
How much do CCs usually charge per unit in other parts of the country?
Luolin, UC still officially has no tuition, as the CA master plan designates it a free public university. We do, however, pay about 12k in "fees" each year. It sounds just like the rent control story, gah.
And I know we've hashed out student eval discussions before on this site, but I'd just respond to that anonymous to point out that the UC adjuncts who get picked up quarter to quarter are rehired almost entirely based on student evals and whether they've caused any ripples like grade complaints or contested plagiarism cases. At least that's what they tell me. And I'm doing evals this week; the students will know their grades except for the final going in to the last section. Mine don't exactly correlate, but I always have a couple students struggling along the D or F range who didn't drop (or came back) and I always have a couple sheets that fill out straight down the "Unsatisfactory" column.
None of Dean Dad's problems seemed to have been problems. But then, California's CCs didn't grow out of the high school system, and the college and university system were much better integrated. And it was pre FERPA, which may have made a difference. In terms of waste, I see the same thing with students paying $30k a year for SLAC that I saw at the CCs -- lots of students enrolling, then not showing up or doing work, dropping out, and starting up somewhere else.
I think that the new financial aid rules also have a huge effect. I took out very few student loans, because I didn't want to be overburdened. Now, students aren't independent, and their parents are taking out the loans or co-signing. But of course, this is from someone who thinks that there are a whole lot of people who could be paying higher taxes for more public transport, better-qualified and better paid (and more accountable without the horror that is NCLB) K-12 teachers, and free higher ed or vocational training for people.
(I saw an example of that in the early 90's, when I briefly lived in Berkeley. Berkeley still had rent control at that point. Apartments were available at reasonable rents, but 'key money' or 'finder's fees' often reached four figures. Water finds its own level, one way or another.)"
Dean Dad! I am pleasantly surprised to see your comments on the folly of subverting market systems! I didn't expect this from my blue-state friend!
Heard related story on NPR this weekend. Among the factoids was a statement from the Mayor of Boston that Bunker Hill CC graduated only 15% of its students, and that 85% of the graduates of that Mayor's high schools needed developmental (meaning high school) classes when entering the CC.
Maybe DD knows if that is 15% "in three calendar years", and what rate Bunker Hill gets if you extend that to 6 years to account for part-time students.