Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Buying Freedom

Although community colleges enroll more students than flagship state universities do, the flagship state universities hog most of the public attention. They have the football teams and the statewide constituencies, and nearly everyone in the state has heard of them.

Unfortunately, that often leads to political or policy decisions being made for entire state systems based on the circumstances of a single outlier campus.

This article struck me as yet another example of that. Following the example of Virginia, university leaders in several states are proposing a form of fiscal secession from their states. The idea is that in exchange for acceding to ever-greater budget cuts from the state, they will be granted much greater autonomy in decisionmaking. They’re essentially trying to buy their freedom.

In the context of a single campus, this may be making a virtue of necessity. If you expect to take a series of budget cuts anyway, you might as well at least get something back. And it’s certainly true that local decisionmaking can sometimes be more efficient than statewide, though I tend to think the numbers thrown around are on the high side of optimistic.

But a model that might, conceivably, make sense for a flagship would be a disaster for a community college.

Flagships are research-intensive, meaning that grant income is a significant revenue stream. They typically have dramatically higher tuition than do the community colleges around them. They have much more highly developed fundraising (“development”) operations. They also have armies of graduate students at the ready to do most of the undergraduate teaching. While continued budget cuts would hurt, state aid is already low enough in many cases that much of the pain has already happened.

Community colleges are different. Here, grant revenue is typically much lower, and what grant revenue that does exist is typically earmarked for very specific, narrow uses. (Many Federal grants now come with prohibitions against using their funds for “supplanting” local funds. In other words, they can only be used for add-ons; they can’t make up for cuts in base operations.) The fundraising arms are typically much less productive, and what money they do raise usually goes directly to student scholarships, rather than to the institution. (Perversely, that actually increases the incentive for colleges to cost-shift to students.) Cc’s don’t have their own graduate students to exploit, and don’t have the high-visibility sports programs to persuade the public to allow tuition to rise to flagship levels.

In this setting, whatever gains might be realized through relative autonomy would be more than swamped by the losses incurred by what amounts to privatization. Since federal grant money couldn’t be used for operations, and private philanthropy isn’t anywhere near what would be needed, the only remaining options would be service cuts and tuition increases. And it’s not like those both haven’t been happening for years already.

(It’s also hard to imagine that the alleged autonomy would last very long. As long as there are political points to be scored one way or the other, there will be interference. And the giant sucking sound from public money being hoovered by the plutocracy won’t suddenly stop just because subsidies go away. Next they’ll want PILOTs -- Payments in Lieu of Taxes -- and an end to student loan subsidies.)

It’s simply impossible to fulfill the mission of a community college without community support. A flagship that sells exclusivity can raise prices out of the range of most people and get away with it, but a community college that did that wouldn’t be a community college anymore.

Cutting red tape is nice, but not at this cost. I just hope the distinction between flagships and cc’s doesn’t get lost in the political debate. Unfortunately, it usually does.

This is a case where flagships are different from everyone else: 2 years and 4 years. Directional schools have at least some of the problems you identify. In the state where I live all are being talked about as one with the flagships(s) leading all down a path of more autonomy, and for the rest of us, likely ruin.
My college is trying to start a 1 billion dollar endowment. This is the other way to get out of the dollars vs. autonomy debate. Just have your own source of funds.
FWIW, CCs Cc’s don’t have their own graduate students to exploit but they do have an army of adjuncts, who often are being paid less than the grad students, esp. when you consider tuition.

On a more helpful note, in an ideal world the flagships going quango should free up resources for the CCs and the comprehensives. Unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world.
This reminded me of conversations I had with both right and left wing friends after a scandal at NPR. Since NPR recieves minimal funding from government, it would likely be better to just set it free as a private non-profit. The right-wingers win, because government is smaller, left-wingers win, because there's more political freedom.

Still, I suspect if Oregon goes private, the Nike swoosh will go from unofficial to official logo.
Many Federal grants now come with prohibitions against using their funds for “supplanting” local funds. In other words, they can only be used for add-ons; they can’t make up for cuts in base operations.

This is true and has been for a long time, but there are ways of getting around some of the rules, which I write about in detail here.

At the scale of a community college, you're completely right: grants won't "make up for cuts in base operations." But they might be more effective at supporting some staff and activities than Federal rules indicate.
Dean Dad:

I know this is off topic, but have you seen this? Many College Students Not Leanring to Think Critically." I find it alarming, but I wonder how much of the blame should be kicked downhill to the K-12 education. Should college kids learn to "think," or should they arrive already having some idea how?
I suspect that this is only really a potential problem where community colleges are part of the same system as universities. New York does it, Tennessee does it except for the University of Tennessee, I think Maine does it, but I think all of the states that have been mentioned for flagship autonomy manage their CCs separately.
Jason, you're over-simplifying the case in TN.

"The University of Tennessee" consists of the five research campuses (UTK, UTC, UTM, UTSI, UTHSC), not just the flagship campus.

And then "TBR" is the other system, which consists of 13 community colleges, 28 "technology centers" (workforce training - not college credit), and six small universities that could not fundraise their way out of a paper bag.
Comment 1:

It is irrelevant that CC's might be in a separate system from universities because the funds come from the same legislature. Even within a "U of State" system, the legislature has line items for each school and even formulas can be tweaked to favor one school over another.

The People need to know that CCs are shortchanged. We get much less money to teach the exact same subject (whether it is English comp or calculus) than the Flagships get, sometimes with the exact same instructors!

By the way, that article failed to look at Penn State, which I recall was pretty happy being off on its own until the state decided to give them a bigger cut than the other schools after the downturn.
Comment 2:

That article about Critical Thinking was interesting until we got to the inevitable "decline of civilization" comments from various experts. How can you compare the results of an Unprecedented One-of-the-First Study with guesses about college life 30 or 50 years ago? You can't. I'm pretty sure we spent 50% of our time socializing in the dorms back in the good old days.

I'm impressed that almost two thirds !! of the study group made significant gains in critical thinking, even if the journalist chose to emphasize the negative side of the same results.

And I was stunned to learn that students in "business, education, social work and communications" showed the least gains, not to mention that "students learned more when asked to do more". Who would ever have imagined such a result.
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