Friday, May 20, 2011


When I think about the California community college system for any length of time, it makes my soul hurt.

Apparently, the state is considering addressing the capacity problem in California cc’s by allowing them to establish separate, parallel course offerings at higher prices.


I don’t have a large enough stock of sufficiently florid curses to give this the treatment it deserves, but I’ll do what I can.

First, a reminder: California cc’s have absurdly low tuition now, which they send directly to the state. (SUNY does that, too, except for the “absurdly low” part.) The state then pays each college a set amount of money from the general fund, which the college (or “district”) uses to cover its operating expenses. This means that tuition revenue is irrelevant for the individual college; it gets sucked into the state budget, and an unconnected number gets spit back. The gap between what the college can support with the number that comes back and actual demand is simply frozen out. Some of the larger districts have turned away tens of thousands of prospective students in the last year alone, just because they didn’t have the resources to run more classes.

That’s bad enough. Now, to complicate matters, the legislature is considering a bill that would allow the colleges to charge substantially higher tuition for parallel courses. The idea is that they would run at no cost to the state. Students would be able to use financial aid to pay for the premium, so depending on how eager they are to get into those classes, they’d have the option of buying their way around the wait list. For an individual student, it’s like having the option to pay more for express shipping. It’s different than charging lab fees for every section of a high-cost course, like a lab science; different sections of the same course, meeting at the same time, could charge wildly different tuitions.


Many community colleges have “workforce development” or “continuing education” branches that run non-credit courses at premium tuition levels, with the idea that they’ll be either self-supporting or supportive of the traditional credit offerings. (That is, profitable, with the profits used to support the rest of the college.) These arrangements can be win-win, but they rely on relatively clear boundaries. The California proposal suggests running the same credit-bearing courses, at the same days and times, with premium tuition levels; a late fee on steroids.

As I understand it, Massachusetts does a variation on this with its community colleges. Everything run after 4 p.m. has to pay for itself. The way they do it is by running everything after 4 p.m. on an adjunct basis. The key difference there is that the tuition doesn’t change; students pay the same during the day as at night. The operation is self-sustaining because it’s entirely adjunct.

It doesn’t take much imagination to see California move in a similar direction. If your state allocation is independent of enrollment and declining, but you have license to charge whatever you want (and presumably keep the money, although the article isn’t clear on that) for non-state-supported sections, then I predict exponential growth of the higher-priced sections. The legislature would have a green light to continue to cut direct aid without officially approving a tuition increase; the number of cut-rate sections would just decline some more each year.

From a managerial angle, this is a nightmare. You’d have to monitor closely who was teaching which section, since anybody higher-priced would need higher enrollments to cover the costs. (Over time, this would create inexorable pressure to go all-adjunct. I’d expect to see colleges interpret California’s rule about full time ratios to apply only to state-supported sections; after all, if you don’t pay the piper, you don’t get to call the tune.) Last-minute staffing changes would be much bigger headaches than they are now.

From a student perspective, it makes planning costs impossible. How do you get one of the coveted cheap seats? Who gets priority?

This is a nose-under-the-tent idea that will lead nowhere good. Better just to follow a few simple steps and be done with it.

1. Let the colleges keep the tuition, and use it for operating expenses.

2. Let the colleges set their own tuition levels. Hint: they’ll be several multiples of their current level.

3. If you want to mandate a minimum ratio of full-time faculty, give enough state aid to pay for it.

Instead of running a high-school model (“districts”) alongside a bastardized for-profit model and hoping nobody notices, better to use a college model. Otherwise the structural tensions will quickly rip the system apart.

Good luck, California. I hope you don’t solve a crisis by creating a catastrophe.