Thursday, September 29, 2011


Green Follows White?

Could community colleges attract more funding by attracting more white kids?

This column suggests that they could. It’s hardly news that “race,” class, and politics intersect in complicated and sometimes unseemly ways in the U.S. Citing the experience of various public K-12 districts, the column argues that “green follows white,” so cc’s that want increased funding would be well-advised to take deliberate measures to attract more sons and daughters of the middle class and higher. Parents care more about their own kids’ schools than about other schools, so if we can enlist politically and economically influential parents, we can get some of that sweet, sweet funding.


I’ll start by both recognizing and condemning the fact that income is racially skewed in the U.S., and that people are more supportive of institutions that seem relevant to them then they are of institutions they assume are for other people. (For example, I care more about the quality of my own kids’ schools than I do about other schools. That’s what parents do.) And yes, there’s an ample history of programs or institutions that get identified with “the poor” getting starved out, while programs identified with the middle class and higher do quite well. The comparative fates of public housing and the mortgage interest tax deduction offer an instructive example. And certainly the history of white flight and the subsequent fates of many urban public school districts is hard not to notice.

That said, though, the idea of shutting out the most vulnerable from one of the few options available to them is morally objectionable. And at least in the short term, money and facilities would lead to some crowding out. If we pay for a beefed-up Honors program by halving our sections of ESL, I could predict the demographic outcome with confidence. (Dispiritingly, I can also predict the effects on our graduation rate. The folks who fixate on graduation rates need to keep this in mind.)

I’d go at it differently. Yes, community colleges need the economic and political support of the middle and upper classes. But they also need to stay true to their reason to exist. Given relatively little slack, is there a way to do both?

One college at which I used to work applied the theory that green follows silver. Attract senior citizens to the college with special programming relevant to them, and assiduously cultivate those relationships over time. Seniors vote at much higher rates than younger people -- especially low-income younger people -- and many of them like to make a mark in the world. To the extent that you can use “senior day” or similar events to cultivate both political support and donations for scholarships, you can do some real good.

I’ll say, too, that I’m a fan of Honors courses and curricula at community colleges. That’s not a universally popular sentiment. But I like them because they acknowledge that the higher-achieving, more ambitious students are also part of the community, and because they acknowledge that income is not a perfect indicator of academic ability or drive. The intelligent, driven student from a single-parent family deserves the same shot as everybody else.

The connection between political support and operating funding strikes me as more complex than just “let’s round up some white kids.” We’ll probably have a natural experiment testing this hypothesis over the next few years anyway, as more kids who might have gone straight to four-year schools in the past find themselves priced out by the recession. If that happens to lead to a broader base of political support and therefore a stronger budget, great, but I haven’t seen that yet. Color me skeptical.

The tragedy of higher ed funding is that historically, green has followed green. The Harvards of the world raise far more than, say, the Bunker Hill Community Colleges of the world, even though there’s an intelligent argument to be made that BHCC would get more use from the money. Yes, some donors are responsive to need, and thank heaven for that, but many more respond to success than to need. If someone out there knows how to break the cycle, I’d love to hear it.

In the meantime, if we can get some green to go with our white, brown, black, and everything else, that would be lovely...

Yeah, if you are bursting at capacity, getting more white students necessarily means others will get shut out.
On the other hand, for those institutions that aren't bursting at the seams, there may be long term benefit to all populations if the money does actually follow. I can see why the strategy could appeal.

Of course, the way I see it, community colleges are worth supporting not only because they provide options to those who society habitually screws over, but because they are useful agents in helping prevent the crushing personal educational debt we are asking younger generations to take on. I'm not sure the later is quite as noble as the former, but I see them both as very morally defensible. I don't see why the later isn't part of their "reason to exist".

If it makes you feel any better to include "debt reduction" under the primary mission of CCs, I have a hunch those with massive debt become more beholden to the status quo (ever see "Thank You For Smoking?", the Yuppie-Nuremberg defense is "I've got a mortgage to pay"). On an individual level, there are a lot of people of all colors who don't become things like teachers in lower income school districts because of crushing personal educational debt. If the status quo is racially discriminatory, asking people to take on more educational debt might perpetuate it.

As an aside- as a parent, part of what drives me crazy is the degree to which racial composition can be used as an accurate proxy for school quality- when people tell me about a "better school", chances are they mean a whiter school than other alternatives. But chances are pretty good they have higher test scores too (I generally don't ask this question of people I know are biased, after all).

Of course, since education is not my field, and I also struggle with the relatively little insight I have into the empirically best schools, when measured by outcomes that go beyond standardized tests. Of course, what I really want to know, what I suspect most parents want to know, is will my offspring thrive here?
Which isn't necessarily an answer that can be determined with research... but I can't shake the feeling some good Principle Component Analysis would help me out.
Here is another point: the white, middle class students that CC's could attract are not entirely those who are qualified to go to a 4-year and just can't afford it at the moment. There is also a fairly sizeable contingent of WMC high school grads who don't succeed at 4-year colleges, probably because they only enrolled to be doing what their friends were doing. After all, 80%of upper-quintile (ecominically) HS grads enroll in college, but only 50% graduate, not a much higher rate than the average. How many of these would do just fine if they had a 2-year time frame, or a more vocationally-oriented program? I agree that it would not be fair to squeeze out ESL students to accomodate middle class students, but I also don't think that's what would happen. And, DD, you have to admit that it is not a bad thing for institutions of higher education to value completion as much as they value giving everyone a chance (and some good support) at the first rung.
What Becca said, plus this:

Since ethnicity and socioeconomic class track pretty consistently, a "better school" also equals a school whose students are better off--regardless of skin color.

Google Stephen Krashen (ex-UC Irvine), subscribe (free) to his email newsletter, and read what he has to say.

I read the "Trends" report funded by the Lumina Foundation a bit differently than the Chronicle's blogger does. All you have to do is look at Figure 5 on page 15 (which I highly recommend to everyone at a CC) to see that CC funding has not suffered the special, targeted decline as their blogger asserts. CC budgets have mirrored those of the "regional U" sector, and CCs remain in roughly the same boat they have been in for years, if not decades.

Note well that the funding nadir was in the middle of the silent, no-growth, not-quite-a recession that characterized Bush's Iraqi Liberation movement and the housing bubble. It would be nice to see that same graph presented in constant dollars going back another decade or three to gain even more perspective.

Also note well that the "research U" sector gets about 50% more from the state for each freshman comp student taught by an adjunct than we get at a CC or teaching-oriented regional U.

(You can also see why a regional U would live an active fantasy life about becoming a research U.)

Even more striking are the tuition differences, where you can see that higher state funding did not result in lower tuition!

I would argue that the shift of middle class students away from a CC start was quite likely the result of sweet financial "aid" packages that contained lots of loans. Hiding the true cost was typical of marketing in the aughts (that led to naught). We see them coming back to our CC, helped by our long-existing Honor's program -- but also helped (I am told) by word of mouth back into the local schools from older sibs to younger ones about class size and personal attention from real professors in first-year classes at a lower cost.

PS to Becca -
The "Third Way" report says you get paid more to teach in a low-income school than in a middle income school. I'd guess the work environment is more of an issue than the pay.
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