Friday, April 18, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Building a Community College

A Tennessee correspondent writes:

Does building a new community college make economic sense for a cash-strapped community?

Where can one go to get a good analysis of the cost to a community to build, staff, and operate a community college?

Our country commissioners have slipped $3 million into a $70 million general bond issue to fund a community college. Details are vague (and apparently not forthcoming) about who is going to actually own the property, how the operating budget will be funded, etc.

We are a community of 14,000 in a county of 60,000 near Nashville and within 45 minutes of Austin Peay University, Vanderbilt University, Vol State, Tennessee State, Lipscomb University, Belmont University, Aquinas College, and several other 2 year, technical, or community colleges.

Other than the current county mayor’s desire to be dean, I’m not really sure who benefits in this deal.

My guess is that the key attraction of a community college to a student is proximity and lower tuition cost. With so many schools in proximity, it seems like the driving force for enrollment will be lower tuition costs which – ultimately – will be subsidized with increased taxes.

The bond issue was passed without notice or a hearing (I’m still not certain how that is legal) so the project is now in the hands of the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Having served as adjunct faculty for six years, I’m pro higher education – but I’m not so certain this is a good idea given the size of our tax base and apparent lack of long-term planning regarding the operational costs.

Any help or direction you can provide would be wonderful.

I don't live in Tennessee, so there's a limit to how specific I can be. Anyone from the area is invited to comment.

I know that Vol State is actually a community college, and its service area is geographically huge. Since cc students are usually commuters, a geographically huge service area is a real problem. Splitting that service area – if that's what this proposal would do – could make some sense.

It's true that community colleges rely partially on tax dollars, though the actual local/state split varies by state (and sometimes within a state). Tennessee cc's don't have local Boards of Trustees (see yesterday's post), instead relying on a statewide Board, so I assume that the state has a considerable role in funding. (I could be wrong on that.) To the extent that tuition and state funding cover the cc budget, that's money the local taxpayers aren't paying directly. (Of course, local taxpayers also pay state taxes, but their share is small.)

Having said that, anybody who thinks that you can generate a decent cc on 3 million is smoking something powerful. Even a narrow focus wouldn't save you, since most cc's have a 'chargeback' system.

Students who live outside a given cc's service area have to pay a tuition premium to attend. The theory is that it makes up for the taxes they haven't paid to support it. Since not every cc can offer every program, they've developed a 'chargeback' system wherein a student in x college's area who wants a program that x college doesn't offer, but y college does, goes to y college for in-area tuition. Y college then bills x college for the unpaid out-of-area premium. That way, college's can't free-ride on each other's expensive niche programs.

The downside, obviously, is that you can't free-ride on established college's expensive niche programs.

Since cc's are public entities, they're subject to the political winds. Among other things, that means that it's usually easier to get money for buildings than for professors to work in those buildings. 'Capital' funding is easy; 'operating' funding is the killer. Tuition helps, but it typically covers only a fraction (albeit an increasing fraction) of the cost.

Do cc's help spur economic development?

They're part of the picture. In my area, for example, there are plenty of high-tech companies that import highly qualified, highly paid talent from wherever, but who also need low-paid lab techs to keep things running. Community colleges train the lab techs. Without that workforce, the high-tech companies couldn't stay.

Cc's also help the economically marginal climb into the working or middle class. We train cops, teachers, nurses, mechanics, lab techs, physical therapists, and the like. Those aren't glamorous jobs, but they're necessary to keep things running, and they allow the folks who aren't Harvard-bound to make decent livings (which involves consuming and paying taxes locally). And, of course, we provide a low-cost option for students to take the first two years of a traditional academic major and then transfer.

As Kevin Carey's article in IHE pointed out the other day, cc's spend fewer tax dollars per student than any other branch of public higher ed, so the cost equation can be figured either way. If you're in an area of growing population, a new cc is probably the lowest-cost way to keep up with the demand for higher ed.

I can't speak to your mayor's motivations, but there are legitimate reasons to build a new cc if an area is growing. Just not for three million.

Wise and worldly readers – what say you?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.