Wednesday, August 08, 2012


Cash Cow or Money Pit?

Yesterday I received two emails in rapid succession that fairly begged for a single response.  One of them seemed quite confident in asserting that developmental education is a cash cow for community colleges.  The other seemed equally confident that developmental education is a money drain for community colleges.

Those can’t both be right.

In truth, I’m not even sure I could answer the question confidently about my own college.  Developmental courses tend to be more expensive in that they run smaller, so we have fewer tuitions to amortize the cost of the instructor.  But they also tend to be staffed with adjuncts, who make less money.  (We’re getting more of a full-time presence, but it’s a slow process.)  They have lower pass rates than credit-bearing classes, so there’s an attrition loss.  Developmental students also make considerable use of the tutoring center -- especially in math -- which is a cost center in its own right.  That said, though, developmental classes don’t need chemistry labs or a lot of specialized equipment, which many credit-bearing classes do.  

Annoyingly, our state funding is independent of current enrollment figures.  (It’s based on a decades-old snapshot of enrollment, adjusted in across-the-board increments since then.  Current enrollment fluctuations affect tuition/fee revenue, but they don’t affect our appropriations.)  So the idea that we’re trying to cadge more money out of the state is false.  It’s a nice theory, but it just doesn’t hold.

More to the point, both credit-bearing and developmental instruction are run at losses.  That’s where the public appropriations come in.  The idea is to price education below the cost of providing it, to encourage people to take advantage of it.  The theory behind that is that an educated workforce and citizenry is a public good.  (I believe strongly in this theory for any number of reasons, but that’s another post.)  Other parts of the college are run for profit -- non-credit courses, summer camps, the bookstore -- but those profits are used to partially offset the losses from core instruction.  

In other words, it isn’t as simple as saying “developmental courses are cash cows” or “developmental courses are money pits.”  All credit-bearing instruction loses money, more or less, and the biggest money pits are likely the low-enrollment upper-level classes that require specialized spaces, like music, studio art, Nursing, or lab science.  But I don’t hear the same questions being asked of those.

It gets even more complicated when you factor in the students who pass through developmental courses and then go on to take credit-bearing courses.  A non-trivial portion of our upper-level enrollment consists of students who made it through developmental classes.  Lose that pipeline, and over time, we’d see effects even on the high end.

Theoretically, I guess, lower enrollments could lead to staffing cuts that would save money.  But the first round of cuts would be the lowest-cost people, who, by definition, would save the least money.  

To my mind, the relevant question with developmental courses isn’t so much whether they generate profits.  It’s whether they generate success.  If they do, then I can see a valid business case for a “loss leader” model; if they don’t, then I see a valid educational case for junking them, or at least re-envisioning them in a pretty drastic way.  (I’m in the latter camp.)  

Of course, there are also the much larger issues of social mobility, the failings of an economically segregated K-12 system, and the fixed costs associated with physical plant.  (If enrollment drops five percent, library costs don’t drop at all, so the cost per remaining student automatically goes up.)  

I’d prefer to see the debate shift.  I can see a valid social argument for public investment that maintains social mobility for people who have been excluded, even if the payoff occurs only over time and off the balance sheet of the college itself.  (Economists call that a “positive externality,” and it’s another argument for a public subsidy.)  To the extent that’s true, let’s discuss how best to improve opportunity, rather than calculating the cost of the poor to three decimal places.  Frugality as selective as this isn’t really about frugality.

Development courses are time and space pits, so the question really is do they displace other classes/activities that you would rather have the time and space
Well put, but it's even more complicated than that. An additional question, if the goal is social mobility, is whether developmental CC classes are the best driver of mobility. Or, are there other strategies that result in more or at least equal mobility, but at a lower cost (to the state and/or to the student. Those other options could be internal to the CC system, internal to the K-16 system, or external. Other countries invest in other social mobility strategies for historical or cultural reasons (and some don't invest in social mobility at all); would any of those other strategies work for the US? are they even feasible for the US? Or, should those other countries be considering a move to our model?
Anonymous@6:31AM says there is a "K-16 system". I'd like to know where such a thing exists, because I have never seen one.

I would argue that the principal need for developmental ed is the simple fact that a minimum pass out of grade 12 does not signal that a student has the prerequisites for "grade 13" classes in math (in particular) or writing. Not even close. There isn't even a canonical "college prep" program in my state that would offer that guarantee.
I used the term "K-16", CCPhysicist, for two reasons: one is that in some states there actually is overlap between K-12 and college, with HS kids taking CC (or 4-year college) courses while still in HS and, on the other hand, many CC and college kids having to repeat what they took in HS. While they don't have the same governance and represent different taxing districts, they are not entirely separate from each other. The second reason is that when CC's and 4-year colleges are open admission, the students tend to think that progressing on to grade 13 is automatic (if they want it and can pay for it). There is no reason to try to master their school work to any particular level of proficiency, since there's no price to pay, in terms of admission, if they don't. And I agree with your other comment, which fits in with mine.
It's true that adjuncts generally teach developmental and gen ed, but I'm not sure that should be the case. The developmental and first year gen ed classes are critical for future success in college, so why do we place our least experienced/trained teachers there? The students in developmental classes have usually had 12 years of schooling, but still haven't mastered basic skills. Shouldn't they be getting the best, most experienced teachers we have, teachers who can innovate new ways to present material that these students have already failed at once? Developmental and gen ed requires its own special teaching skills. If we really want these students to succeed, we should be giving them out best teachers.

Note: I've taught for over twenty years, as a grad student, adjunct, FT instructor, and now adjunct again. Adjuncts and TAs can be great teachers. But you need specialized skills to teach developmental, and too many adjuncts and TAs just don't have it.
@anon 7:27...

It's better than that! It's not just that we typically put adjuncts in developmental classes at the college level, we typically put the least-prepared, newest, and least skilled teachers in the classes where need for a good teacher is most concentrated across the K-12 system.

You can thinking of it at both a systemic and individual classroom level.

Uncertified teachers, those with poor content backgrounds and those least experienced are typically hired by poorer districts and those with the lower performing students. And, within districts and schools there's also a sorting effect...
Anon@1:27PM -

I think there is overlap in every state, and even cases where the K-12 school pays for books and tuition at a CC or University. In some states (like where I grew up) the CC or JC schools grew locally and collect property taxes. In others, they were created by the higher ed system and only get appropriations from the state, like state universities. The same accrediting agency deals with HS and colleges and universities, but you might notice a different section deals with K-12.

They are ENTIRELY separate from one another. That HS kid has to apply and be admitted to my CC, passing the relevant placement tests. We don't take the HS's word for anything, and we certainly do not believe that their "precalculus" class is the absolute equivalent of the ones taught at colleges and universities.

I agree 100% with your observation about "Grade 13" thinking, but it is not limited to open admissions schools. Read the blog entry linked from my name, and notice the problems they have with it at Johns Hopkins.
Anon@2:27PM -

What you write about adjuncts teaching gen ed classes MIGHT be true at universities, it is certainly false when applied to Community Colleges. At my CC, about 50% of sections for gen ed classes are taught by full-time tenure-track faculty.

We also have a tt core of faculty teaching developmental math and writing, but I don't know the fraction of classes there. These are people who specialize in that particular area.
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