Monday, September 16, 2013


Should Gen Eds be Free?

Sherman Dorn caught my eye recently with a proposal that “general education” courses at community colleges should be offered for free.  The idea was to encourage people to see community colleges as viable and attractive feeders, to bring down student loan burdens, and to encourage community colleges to focus on student success in the academic core.

To which I say, no.  Thanks, but no.

And I say that as someone who believes strongly that community colleges would be well-advised to double down on the liberal arts core.  The last chapter of my book mentions that strategy specifically.  So why can’t I sign on with Dorn’s proposal?

Two reasons: unintended consequences, and non-instructional costs.

The second is the easier to explain.  Yes, we pay faculty.  But we also pay for electricity, and counselors, and advisers, and financial aid staff, and the registrar, and maintenance, and even, yes, “administration.”  We pay for library materials, heating and cooling, IT, and accessibility services.  Demagogues like to demonize that as “overhead” or “waste,” but they get curiously quiet when asked to specify just what, exactly, they would cut.  

Some courses cost less to teach than others.  Many of the cheapest to teach are the gen eds, since many of them don’t require specialized labs, or clinical sites, or expensive technology.  By charging the same for courses across the board, we’re able to cross-subsidize the more expensive stuff.  A full section of Intro to Psych, taught by an adjunct, generates revenue that helps offset the considerable cost of Nursing clinicals.  Take away the revenue from Psych, and we’d have to drop Nursing.  

To be fair, Dorn’s proposal refers to “the first new dollars” of state money to pay for the free courses.  The implication is that the state will make up for the loss of tuition and fees from those courses, and that it will provide “new” money instead of just telling colleges to eat it.

Color me skeptical.

As with the proposal last week to make community colleges free, I’d expect to see some serious misgivings at the state level as soon as they figure out that they’re essentially replacing federal money -- in the form of financial aid -- with state money.  It would be lovely to assume a dollar for dollar match and then some, but lots of things would be lovely to assume.  And I maintain my view that becoming more dependent on state finances would prove catastrophic when the next recession hits.  Which it will.

The picture gets more complicated when you shift from a state perspective to a campus one.  Once you start designating certain courses as “gen ed” and others as not, colleges would have approximately zero incentive to improve gen ed, and would instead focus entirely on other things.  After all, those other things bring in operating revenue, which the gen eds don’t.  I’d expect to see a serious move away from A.A. degrees, which are laden with gen ed, and towards short-term certificates and A.A.S. degrees, in which gen eds are much lighter.  States would try to lower their bills by “streamlining” gen ed, essentially by standardizing it.  Colleges would have every incentive to go along with that project, since gen ed would become a money drain.  I see students and faculty emerging with fewer options, larger class sizes, and an inexorable pattern of watering-down.

I once worked at a college with a “diversity” requirement: students had to take at least one “diversity-certified” course to get a degree.  Predictably, a rush ensued to get anything and everything “diversity-certified,” no matter how far the stretch.  I foresee the converse of that here, with departments and colleges rushing to redesignate classes as outside of gen ed, except for the barest core.  If “gen ed” comes to be synonymous with “money pit,” colleges will minimize it.  They’ll have to.  

Dorn’s proposal is well-intended, and I can see the appeal.  But it’s full of perverse incentives for both states and colleges, and I just don’t have enough faith in civic virtue to assume that everyone will look past their own incentives.  “Free” is a magic word, and I’m a supporter of it in certain contexts (like OER and mini-prep classes).  But getting that granular at the level of operating funding, and trusting in the farsighted wisdom of state legislatures during recessions, just seems like an accident waiting to happen.

Thanks for addressing the costs issue. This is something I'd wondered about (, and your analysis expresses why the "free gen ed" or maybe MOOC gen ed model might be a bad idea.
The entire discussion assumes, incorrectly, that business calculus and regular calculus and my physics class are not general education classes. They are. No one requires that a business or engineering major take some gen-ed math or science and then take the real ones. They start right out in the real classes. If you change that for students who start at a CC, they would end up paying in both time and money to take extra classes after they got done with the free ones. I can see that plan resulting in a denial of access to good careers to students who have to start at a CC, violating the entire premise of state support of higher education.

Something similar applies to other fields that also have sophomore level gen ed classes targeted at their majors. For example, we have a literature course suitable for an introduction to the major in addition to the if-it-is-Tuesday-it-must-be-the-renaissance hums-for-all class.

Finally, if that plan is so good, why does he exclude research universities? It doesn't cost them any more than it does us to teach a composition class, modulo a few hundred dollars more that they pay their adjuncts, but they get a lot more from the state per student than we do. I'd guess that every tuition dollar for gen ed is profit at some universities.
@CCPhys, I couldn't determine if The entire discussion assumes, incorrectly, that business calculus and ... are not general education classes was referring to DDs post or the original proposal by Dorn. I'm guessing you likely mean the original proposal. At my university, we do count physics and calculus among the gen eds.

I don't know our budget numbers. I can report that departments with many gen ed courses seem to receive much more financial support (new faculty, teaching assistants, ...) compared to departments without gen eds. I suppose that supports the profit argument. (If it brings in extra money, do more of it...)
Thanks for taking my idea seriously! My response is at

CCPhysicist, the reason why I focused on community colleges is threefold:

1) My intended mechanism is the legislature paying the tuition/fees directly, and doing so would be much cheaper to do (and thus more politically feasible) for community colleges.

2) The population that most needs the help are in community colleges.

3) This is in part a way to push a mechanism for the balance-wheel dynamics of state higher ed budgets to benefit general instruction, not pet projects.
HS Lab Partner:
I probably interpreted "many of them don't require specialized labs" as if it read "all". I do know that our CC versions of those majors classes are more expensive than the university ones because we use full professors in thirtyish student classrooms to teach calculus and all other math classes while universities pack them into large lectures.

My intended mechanism is to get the State (or its taxpayers) to realize that research universities are already getting more than enough from the State to teach its gen eds for free with a mostly adjunct faculty. Equal funding for freshman students across the CC and Uni classes they take might allow us to teach gen eds for no or little tuition.
You write that G.E.s don't require
specialized labs, or clinical sites, or expensive technology
But shouldn't they? I mean science does fall within the GE spectrum doesn't it?
One of my problems with GE courses is how watered down they are, how they are taught by faculty who receive the worst treatment and least investment and how much they interfere with major's courses (at my institution - where about 51 semester units in a 120 unit major are GE - that's for a BS - it's more GE outside the major for a BA.) They are a time suck and a way to make money by employing slave labor - nothing more. They trick unsuspecting students into thinking they've taken "college level" whatever when in fact at least in the sciences they are just repeating what people should have learned in high school. If they were really teaching science, they would have labs and real faculty and all the expense that comes with a major's course. Instead, we fool ourselves into thinking that by exposing students to different disciplines they will catch them like infectious diseases and somehow get them integrated into their intellectual DNA.
In a perfect world, I think we should divide all disciplines into three domains – Science, Art, Humanities. I think GE should be limited to 4 lower division classes and 2 upper division ones, taken outside of the domain of your major. If a student graduates from a major not knowing how to write or speak, oh well. It was their choice to avoid learning those things. If departments want their majors to be able to write, they should incorporate writing into their major’s courses (teaching a bio major how to analyze a poem and write about it accomplishing little. Teaching them to write a lab report accomplishes a lot.) I know that sounds harsh but we are talking about 18 year olds and I don’t see the point of forcing them to take a lot of classes they don’t want to take in order to make them learn things they don’t want to know in order to save them from themselves.

Bravo, Ivory! I couldn't agree more.
Bravo, bravo! I'm sure many science students and their future employers would be happier if there was a technical writing class (or two) that included writing reports and memos of many kinds. Then we would have something to build on when we teach labs.

However, why did you left out math? Even there the main idea applies: many would benefit from a personal financial management course about mortgages, investment, and tax returns rather than the "college algebra" that we require now.

On the other hand, I can't see a humanities major taking an upper division or lower division "real" science class. Isn't there still a real need for a pair of classes like Physics for Future Presidents and Molecular Biology for Future Presidents that covers what should have been learned in HS but wasn't?
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