Friday, September 19, 2008


Perversely Enough, We're Upscaling

In conversation this week with someone who works in the 'student life' side of the college, I heard something I hadn't heard before.

I knew that recessions (or economic slowdowns, since I'm really not interested in splitting semantic hairs here) generally bring increased enrollments at cc's. The reasons are straightforward enough: the opportunity cost of education is lower when jobs are scarce, the need for a degree is higher when jobs are scarce, and our low tuition becomes much more attractive when things get precarious. This is old news. People who otherwise might have gone somewhere more expensive will take a second look at the local cc when money is an issue.

Unless – and this was the part I didn't realize – they're so ridiculously broke that the logic circles around. According to my source, who's in a position to know, some of our increasing number of homeless (or intermittently homeless) students are actually transferring to four-year schools earlier than they would prefer. The draw is financial aid for dorm rooms and meal plans.

Financial aid at the cc only covers tuition, fees, and a (low) estimate for books.* It doesn't do anything for living expenses, which aren't getting any cheaper. But financial aid at the nearby residential four-year colleges includes room and board. If you're intermittently homeless, the prospect of aid covering a place to live and a meal plan is nothing to sneeze at.

So the perverse impact of the economic downturn is that we get more people from the upper end of the economic scale, since they're playing it safer by choosing the low-cost option, and fewer people from the lower end, since we don't offer subsidized room and board. Perversely enough, we're upscaling.

Community colleges live a Keynesian existence. Our enrollments are aggressively counter-cyclical, even though our operating subsidies generally aren't. (Our philanthropic income generally isn't, either, so there's little relief on that front.) Increased enrollments bring increased tuition revenue, which helps offset the decreased public aid, but which puts additional strains on services and facilities. (Parking has been a limited exception this time around, since gas got so expensive. We're seeing much fuller buses than in the past, so the increased stress on the parking lots is less than would have been expected.)

Now we're experiencing a sort of counter-cyclical sociological shift, with more middle-class students and fewer really poor ones just when the economy is going South. The cars in the student parking lots are, on average, a little nicer than they were a few years ago.

I'll admit to feeling a little unsettled at the thought of some of our students applying to transfer just to have a place to live, but I can't argue with their logic.

Wise and worldly readers at other cc's – have you seen this on your campus?

*I'll admit to being intrigued at the prospect of a textbook rental program, at a predictable flat rate that financial aid could cover, but we aren't there yet. Perversely enough, bookstore profits are part of the college's operating budget, so we couldn't afford to cannibalize that too much.

Re: Textbook costs: I convinced my department to let me attempt a course without a textbook next semester. I realize this wouldn't work for many courses, but it's a "History of Western Ideas" course, the textbook that's been in use is $85, and almost ALL of the readings are available at Project Gutenberg or elsewhere. For the modern guys who are still in copyright, I'm going to do a little research and see if we can manage with a couple trade paperbacks or else find out what the copyright people at the school say is allowable for online posting on Blackboard.

(I've given up doing anything but what the copyright people say, because despite my actual law degree (and their not-law-degrees), they never believe me, and routinely refuse to let me do things that clearly ARE legal under copyright, and routinely do things that are clearly NOT.)
I actually made a similarly reasoned decision when I went back to school after a hiatus in 2002. Ever since September 11th attacks I had been unable to find steady enough work to support myself and between that and a bout of pneumonia my savings were gone and my parents were having to subsidize my rent. That couldn't go on forever, so I decided to go back to school since I could get loans to pay for rent and food.

Unfortunately, having made this decision, I didn't go about the next steps very wisely and chose a very expensive school. Nobody pointed out to me directly what should have been obvious (that the more you borrow, the higher your monthly payment is when you pay it back) and I borrowed a lot more than I should have. Even then, it was difficult to make ends meet due to how high rents are in my area.

But I didn't go homeless or starve for 2 more years, so there was that. When you're in that situation, your thinking is very -- short-term. Immediate survival is the most important thing; if you're going to have to pay a high price for it later -- oh well. You don't care about that very much. At least I didn't. I was just focused on keeping myself in food and shelter.

It's worked out, in the end, anyway.
Textbook rental wouldn't work. The average textbook probably has a new edition come out every three years, and some classes change textbooks more often than that. Would you be able to make enough of a profit is that short of time to make it profitable.
Googling "textbook rental" turned up a number of companies and some universities (San Diego State's bookstore, Southeastern Louisiana's bookstore) just on the first page.

On the original question, I have not seen the demographics of this year's students, but (modulo the statistics of small samples) my physics classes have more freshmen in them than in the past. However, our poorest students generally require too much remediation to go to a 4-year school directly out of high school.
As one who spent over $400 on books this semester alone, I'm really intrigued by the idea of a rental program.
Heh, build Tiny Houses?
Just an FYI on textbook rentals... it works at my school. We are allowed a new textbook purchase each three years for a class if we can determine need (ie: the old ones are falling apart, the material is outdated, etc.). I don't know about all the other academics out there but I tend to stick with the textbooks for more than three years. My material isn't particularly cutting-edge and new textbooks require reworking assignments, projects, labs, and online materials to match the new text which has the same info as the last book just reordered with nicer pictures. Basically, as a student, I got hammered with $300-$500 a semester for books. I think the rental system is great for the students. I don't feel disadvantaged as an educator by the system either.

Here the students pay a fee for the service and a refundable deposit for the books. I like the system except for the policy that students have to have textbooks returned by the last day of finals. Seems like it wouldn't be that difficult to give them the Friday of that week too. Particularly as there are Thursday evening finals.

Sorry this wasn't really on the post topic but I like to share when a good thing is happening at my institution. So many 'not good' things happen. Nice to focus on the positive for a change!
The upscaling phenomenon is something affecting not just community colleges. Second- and hird-tier regional campuses of state universities are seeing something of the same effect.

As for textbooks. Take a serious look at on-line texts. I know the few available in economics at the intro level include a couple of good ones. (Students will have to accept--as will you, as will you--seeing ads in the text, in some cases, but they are free.)
Maybe this is just too revolutionary to work in every instance, but I'm a big fan of using wiki software to share academic material . In addition, I think more use could be made of using academic journal articles online. Part of that view is 'grad school' bias, I admit.

That said, I often found classic textbooks to be less than useful. More use really needs to be made of things like Project Gutengerb.
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