Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How Not to Balance a CC Budget

Out-of-state students!

According to this article, several state university systems are now considering making deliberate moves to increase the proportion of out-of-state students, specifically to capture the tuition premium. The idea is to replace lost state subsidy support.

I won't address the logic at the university level. But at the cc level, this would be political suicide.

In most states, out-of-state students pay higher tuition at public colleges and universities than in-state students do. This holds true all the way from the flagship university to the community colleges. (In states where community colleges are based in counties, out-of-county students usually pay a rate in between in-county and out-of-state.) The idea is that the taxes they've paid by living in that state have subsidized the cost of education there, so in-state tuition is a form of payback. Out-of-state students haven't subsidized that state's colleges, so they pay more.

The idea isn't perfect, of course. One could easily make a case that to the extent that Federal money is involved, my taxes support higher education in every state. But it's certainly true that my state and local taxes go to my state and local systems in a way that they don't go to the systems of a neighboring state. And to the extent that public institutions are reliant on the goodwill of their taxpayers -- which is to say, for their very survival -- there's something to be said for keeping the locals happy.

The out-of-state premium is supposed to be enough to make out-of-state students at least a break-even proposition. But in practice, many systems treat them as cash cows. They don't have the legislature's ear like in-state students do, and the fact that they're there anyway indicates a certain level of desire. They can even add a certain kind of diversity to a student body, at least in theory, even if in practice they tend to be upper-middle-class or just plain rich.

(The exception to that is undocumented students who are treated as out-of-state. But that's an entirely different issue. There, the students in question are effectively local, often having graduated from a local high school; they're undocumented because they came over as kids. In that case, the issue isn't interstate poaching; it's federal immigration policy, which is much more complicated.)

In discussions I've had with state legislators, the issues that prick up their ears are the number of students who live in their district, the number of employees who live in their district, and the relationships we have with employers in their district. Out-of-state students don't count. And I don't want to have the conversation in which I try to explain why our scarce marketing dollars are being spent out-of-state.

Even leaving the politics aside, there's a basic irrationality to the entire idea. If we simply traded a third of our student body with a counterpart school across the state line, what, exactly, would we have achieved? As near as I can tell, we'd simply shift more of the cost of instruction onto students, thereby effectively licensing our home state to make even more cuts. If the students keep paying, why not? And it's not like those students vote here anyway.

No. It's not what cc's are for, and the long-term cost would dwarf any short-term gains. I get the 'premium tuition' argument -- this week, more than ever -- but some premiums just aren't worth it.