Thursday, February 05, 2009
Man Bites Dog
In discussions with colleagues on campus, we're beginning to think it's because we're a 'man bites dog' story. Unlike almost every other institution around, we're growing. Annoyingly, we're growing enrollments while downsizing employees, but they tend not to focus on that. If you interpret 'enrollments' as 'sales,' then our sales are up. Almost nobody else around us, except for other public colleges, can say that. And the local press is so desperate for good news that it repeats this story with remarkable frequency.
The weird economics of public higher ed – in which a substantial chunk of our income is decoupled from our 'sales,' and actually goes down when sales go up – puts us in this awkward position. And the weird public perception of community colleges means that every time a reporter calls, we have to correct the story they've already written in their heads.
The story in their heads goes like this: In this recession, displaced workers are going back to school to upgrade their skills. (Interview salt-of-the-earth forty-year-old man who was recently laid off.) Community colleges are safe havens from The Great Recession. Education is truly the key to success. Back to you, Ted.
It's a nice story, and we get calls for quotes to help them write it. But it gets the big picture wrong.
The actual story goes like this: In this recession, parents' jobs are shaky, so they send their kids to the community college instead of the local private college to save money. (Contrary to the prewritten story, the average age of our students continues to drop.) As we shift to more traditional-age students whose orientation is to transfer, our major growth is in the liberal arts area. The “laid off 40 year old goes back to school” story is heartwarming, and sweet, and occasionally true, but it's a small and declining fraction of our world. The real story is the increasing use of cc's by middle class kids who use it to save money and transfer.
This is why stories like “Tuition Bubble” strike me as almost too asinine even to rebut. Pretentious U may charge too much, but it's hardly the only game in town. If you look at what cc's charge, the whole 'tuition bubble' argument collapses of its own absurdity.
(Assuming no financial aid or scholarship money of any kind, a full-time student at my cc now pays about one-third of what we paid for daycare for The Boy five years ago. If you want to look at the costs that are crippling families, look at that. Where are the stories about the daycare bubble?)
Unfortunately, public anger at Pretentious U winds up being taken out on us, since we're controllable and Pretentious U isn't. Predictably enough, that actually widens the resource gap between us and Pretentious U. Just at the moment when we're most needed, we're kneecapped.
I'm happy to have a part in helping people get their higher education started. Enrollment growth is a good thing. And both transfer and workforce-driven programs serve valid and valuable purposes. I'm just getting a little tired of reading the same half-baked man bites dog story (or its evil twin, the tuition bubble story) when it gets the essentials wrong.
So the situation is not as bad as it could be. However in the local media our college president makes it sound really rosey. He brags about higher enrollment but says nothing about the fact that we have had to temporarily cut some adjucts out. He says nothing about staff having to teach courses or the he is having to teach a course. I suppose that is part of public relations, the spin.
Do I think 09-10 will be any better? If it is not we are going to lose a lot of faculty to burn out. So we better hope and pray it is better.
In terms of daycare, that seems to still be seen as a women's issue by the media, therefore not worth reporting at all or in any detail. But I bet if it ever becomes a central issue in reporting it will be reported as - look how wonderful it is that women are losing jobs in the recession and they can stay home with their kids - forced opt-out. It seems journalism, with exception of feminist publications, like to ignore the workplace policy that makes it difficult for both women and men to work and take care of children. It is nice to hear a male voice with the frustration of this issue.
You are halfway there with this blog, lacking only the specific facts about tuition, not to mention state support computed on a per-student basis. Is it risky to antagonize the Big Dog U? Perhaps. That seems to be the view of my Prez, who takes the approach Doug describes.
I happen to think that this lets BDU (which gets more than twice as much per student as we do while teaching them in huge pens like cattle) get away with murdering us in the legislature. They are going to murder us anyway, but someone needs to tell the voters that their legislator is not helping the largest group of college students in the state.
A CC has open admissions. The 40-something does not compete with the 18-something to get in, only in the race to register for a seat in a class (which they often win due a bit more foresight than the teen typically has). The drop in average age reflects the untold story: the number of teens switching to the cheaper CC is much greater than the number of unemployed going back to school. I suspect this is because older workers are actually underemployed, working multiple jobs to keep up their house payment, and don't have time to go to school.
Here's the dilemma he's in right now: how to deal with mixed messages from CC administration emphasizing 1. the importance of student retention (hint hint) 2. bringing this CC to back above average for its size in terms of student math performance. On the whole this CC has a very good reputation in science and eng. prep. Still, I hear from my fiance (a LOT) about his frustration with what he perceives as instructors lowering their standards. It's hard to know how to read this. But if you get a student in your calculus based physics course who doesn't remember how to do derivatives 1 month after taking calc, what's going on? Also, if the physics instructor at a satellite campus of this CC regularly has an A- average in his classes (my fiance's is more like C, and that's in step with chem/bio/otherscience instructors there), how do you respond? This calculus student isn't an isolated case.
There's a lot going on here, but even without identifying all the causes for it, it's important to know. To what extent are standards already shaky here? What are the true priorities?
This CC isn't in immediate trouble, but like everyone else, is looking at major economizing. They're also in the position of getting much less funding from the state than MMU, but charge about 1/2 the tuition MMU does.
So, Dean Dad and other commenters, what do you think?
What do I think? I think it sounds quite familiar, except for the pressure affecting me. But some of our new math faculty seem a bit too, err, "student centered" and that is starting to impact me. I do, however, have a way of dealing with it.
SO .... I also think I need to get back to blogging about those topics, so I think I will simply post an open thread to start that conversation. Follow the link on my signature.