Tuesday, March 15, 2011


A World Without Community Colleges

In the wake of yesterday’s post, which prompted notes from several alert readers reminding me that other states (such as Pennsylvania) were just as bad as those I named, I’ve been thinking about how the country would work if it simply gave up on the model of public higher education.

That wouldn’t necessarily involve closing all the colleges, though it would some. I’m imagining instead what would happen if community and state colleges were essentially cut loose from public funding, and treated as private nonprofits. Since that’s clearly the direction we’re heading, it may be worth looking down the road a bit.

After all, one could argue, we have a large and impressive network of private colleges and universities, and a rapidly growing infrastructure of for-profits. Land-grant universities were a concoction of the mid-nineteenth century, and community colleges were a development of the twentieth. (By general agreement, the “first” community college, Joliet Junior College, was established in 1901.) So a world without public higher ed has existed before.

Private nonprofits still have a few advantages over their for-profit competitors. Even in the absence of direct subsidies, nonprofits enjoy tax-exempt status. My college, for instance, pays no property tax on its multi-acre campus. That’s a considerable savings, and I haven’t heard anyone go after that yet. Nonprofits can also solicit tax-deductible donations, which I expect will become more important in the coming years.

Presumably, the end of public subsidies for colleges would involve some thinning of their ranks. The combination of spending cuts and price increases would eventually become unsustainable for many. For others, survival would be a function of one (or more) of the following: geographic monopoly, clear programmatic identity, and/or narrowing of mission. (By “narrowing of mission” I mean mostly price increases that compromise the “access” function, though presumably it could also mean going selective.) I’d expect to see an enormous shift of enrollment from campus-based to online courses, with campus-based learning becoming a boutique product for the wealthy. The already-expensive, nonselective private colleges will drop like flies, as they just won’t have the value proposition to compete in the market.

As financial aid shifts from institutions to students, the colleges will necessarily become more market-driven in their offerings. The balance of curricular power will shift, first slowly and then quickly, from the faculty to the students, whose “votes with their feet” will determine what survives. Tenure will fade away, and unions will have a much harder time. Programs like ESL will suffer disproportionately, since their students tend to be the least lucrative. Non-elite students would either go without college, or would go in even greater numbers to the for-profits, where their loan burdens will be dramatically higher than they are now.

As with the for-profits now, I’d expect to see a much faster pace of change in both curriculum and method of delivery. That’s both good and bad. Any reasonable observer would have to concede that the pace of change in much of traditional academia now is absurdly slow, but based on what I saw at Proprietary U, it’s also possible to go much too fast. Since the hot jobs at any given moment can change quickly, curricula will have to change to keep up. Anything that functions as a speed bump will get steamrolled.

Prices will go up much faster than they do now in absolute terms, since the annual percentages will be from a much higher base. That will remain true unless and until financial aid dries up, at which point the entire model will come crashing down. The students who are the most vulnerable will suffer the most, since “every man for himself” naturally favors the strong over the weak. Over time, colleges will be seen less as philanthropic and more as carnivorous, because they will be.

Over time, I’d expect to see serious issues around accreditation and transfer. Once states lose the leverage to mandate the transferability of credits within state systems, I’d expect to see newly autonomous colleges get much more idiosyncratic in their transfer decisions. Accreditation based on the credit hour will become hard to sustain, since the prominence of online courses will throw “seat time” into question. As colleges become more frankly competitive with each other, I’d expect to see much of the “gentlemen’s agreement” culture that underlies much of the industry, including regional accreditors, to fray badly.

In the short term, I’d expect a dramatic runup in student costs. Over the longer term, as the industry first fragmented and then collapsed, I’d expect to see the “varying prices for the same degree” model collapse, leading to a “varying prices for varying certificates” model. We’d have a Tower of Babel of degrees, at least until a few market-dominating behemoths were able to enforce a new standardization by virtue of size.

Or, and this would be my preferred option, we could try to make the public education model sustainable. What do you think?

Based on your comments, you really should study what Penn State has done more closely. You see, they made a deal some years ago to become a "state" school in name only in exchange for more autonomy, much as you argue here. Their appropriation (like that of Temple) is in the same category as the state subsidy for Pitt, making them a quasi-private university that trades in-state tuition for state dollars.

What makes this tricky is that this status (and the sky-high tuition) only applies fully to the main campus, but the proposed cuts apply equally to the more heavily subsidized branch campuses that are more like other state schools.
CCPhysicist: interesting point. I live in PA, and my understanding (perhaps wrong) is that what you describe applies to all the "Penn State" campuses -- e.g., Abington, Brandywine, etc. The institutions more fully supported by public funds are places like Kutztown State, Stroudsberg, and West Chester Univ., etc. I may be wrong, though.
This is an interesting and timely question. From the vantage point of one who has worked and taught in both the university and college system in Canada it may be useful to also examine more disruptive scenarios - ones that test the model of post secondary education as it is presently bundled.
We have heard for a long time that the present coupling of instruction with assessment with credentialing may not be the best approach moving forward. In that light do we finally see Prior Learning Assessment reach its full potential as learners create portfolios of previous experiences and formal and informal education to be presented for assessment and credentialing (with the assessment process provided outside of the walls of CCs/Unis)? The web now provides access to content and, perhaps with easy-to-use guides that would help a learner navigate to find the right content (with might range from TED presentations to MIT open courseware to…) a self-directed system could have potential. I recognize that not all learners have this level of maturity, particularly those who are just out of K-12. I also recognize that this will be very threatening to teachers/instructors who view their work as more than providing access to content. Both of these concerns are legitimate (and also, too often, overstated).
Alternatively, do we see more centralization of learning, assessment and credentialing as professions themselves moving to assume much greater roles in pre-professional preparation; returning to the traditional guild model? (and the word profession is used broadly - this could involve fields like nursing but also the private sector (including industry- wide partnerships of multiple firms in the same business) who are training technicians.)
There are other options but one of the themes would be the fragmentation of post-K12 learning. At present the post secondary system (even when considering the thousands of institutions and different state/provincial systems) provides an efficient mechanism; one that takes a significant burden off of the shoulders of employers and professional bodies. That said, cash strapped governments may be willing to pass these costs back to employers.
All of these scenarios have pros and cons so I am not presenting them as preferred options. Christensen’s work on disruptive innovation suggests that the disruptors rarely come from within and the solutions are often fundamentally different from the mainstream. For example, using this view the success of the Phoenix U model is less an example of disruption than the ability to find a large niche (i.e., that too many universities treated part-time, older learners with complete distain).
If we are going to think strategically about how to move the post-secondary system forward we will need to be able to move well beyond private bad/public good and tinkering with existing models.
You are probably correct, Christopher. When I looked up their tuition for a blog about tuition inflation, I had only looked at the in-state tuition difference, not the out-of-state premium.

It cost $1260 per SEMESTER more to attend the main campus than a branch campus ($7206 vs $5946) for freshmen last fall. However, the out-of-state premium is MUCH bigger on the main campus (+ $5932 pr 82% higher) than on a branch campus (+ $3128 or 53% higher), and that might be a better indication of state subsidies if there weren't also supply/demand issues mixed in. (I'd suspect out-of-state students are more likely to attend the school that has a famous football team!)

Overall, it does look like the subsidy is effectively the same for all "Penn State" campuses, but there still might be reasons to think that some smaller campuses could not support higher tuition and would need to close with the changes being proposed.
"Or, and this would be my preferred option, we could try to make the public education model sustainable. What do you think?"

I see no way to make it sustainable. We've poured billions of tax dollars into this model and gotten a pretty puny return on the investment. Taxpayers are noticing, and they are tired of it. We need to shrink our higher ed overcapacity, one way or another.

All those dollars will have to be diverted to Obamacare anyway.
I love the way that conservatives just blindly assert that the United States has gotten a "puny" return on its investment in higher education.

I suppose that if you share the conservative value system that widespread prosperity is a bad thing, rather than a good thing, that could make sense. But it's hardly a coincidence that the GI bill kicked off a massive multidecade period of expansion not seen before or since.
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