At NACCE I briefly got into a colloquy with a very young, very self-assured investor who asserted confidently that “young people” don’t care a whit about institutions or tradition, and that they will desert public higher ed en masse as soon as a better deal comes along, which is already happening. I suggested that what he called “young people” in fact reflected an elite, well-resourced slice of young people, and that hollowing out more universalist institutions on their whim would amount to abandoning everybody else. I still believe that, but I think I’m honing in on why we kept talking past each other.
He was looking at the student as the customer. From his perspective, it’s perfectly obvious that online options will do to colleges what Amazon did to Borders. And if you assume unproblematically that “the customer” in higher education resembles the customer in book sales, then that perspective makes sense. But it isn’t as simple as that.
Who is the community college’s customer?
- Students, obviously.
- Parents/Families. Particularly for young students and first-generation students, college choice -- whether to go at all, and where -- is often a family decision. This is generally not true for, say, individual book purchase decisions.
- Employers. They see students as products, and themselves as customers. The concept of “workforce development” is built on the assumption that colleges produce workers.
- Four-year colleges. As with employers, they see our students as products, and they judge our success by the success of our transfers at their schools.
- The state (and sometimes county). He who pays the piper calls the tune. While it’s true that state/county funding as a percentage of college operating budgets is on a long-term and seemingly permanent decline, it’s still significant enough that the state sees community colleges as instruments for achieving broader policy goals. Nobody judges Amazon by the racial demographics of its customers, but community colleges are judged in part by how well they achieve the goal of eliminating racial gaps. Community colleges are supposed to produce employable graduates with a broad set of skills, as well as educated citizens capable of taking meaningful part in our politics.
- The Feds. While we don’t get direct operating appropriations from the federal government -- not that anybody does this week -- the feds are the single largest source of financial aid for students. Pell grants, subsidized loans, veterans’ benefits, and the rest matter tremendously, though each comes with its own set of strings. Those strings matter for what we can offer. (No Pell in summer! Wait, there is! No, there isn’t!) Community colleges also frequently participate in a host of institutional grant programs -- Title III, Title V, NSF, DOL/TAA, NIH, etc. -- that bring criteria, assessments, and imperatives of their own.
- The service area. Higher education is largely a reputational industry. That’s much less true for, say, retail. If I want the new Gladwell book, I can buy it from any one of a bevy of retailers. I’ll judge the performance on price, speed of delivery (if applicable), and hassle. If I decide that I don’t much like the book, my disappointment is aimed at the author, not at the bookseller.
Judging the likely quality of a college education in advance is a much more complicated and problematic task. In practice, most people rely on reputation. Maintaining visibility and a positive reputation in the community is crucial. In the context of a community college, alumni tend to stay relatively local, so alumni relations and community relations overlap significantly.
This list is far from exhaustive. Add local nonprofits, K-12 districts, sports fans, unions, and whomever else you like. It’s all true.
My confident young interlocutor seemed to think me obtuse for not recognizing that sweeping away every category of customer other than students would allow for a much more streamlined and efficient operation.
Yes, it would. Satisfying multiple masters, each with different and often conflicting agendas, is harder than focusing on just one. But wishing politics away won’t get the job done. If we move into the brave new world of technology-enhanced autodidacts, what happens when we notice tremendous social gaps in who benefits? What happens when some can’t afford it, and are permanently shut out? What happens when some brave new provider does a lousy job?
I don’t raise this in the spirit of defeatism or resignation, but in recognition of Hegel’s dictum that freedom is the insight into necessity. If we’re going to adapt and improve -- which we need to do -- we have to recognize the various needs out there. We may need to make some choices among them, but that requires acknowledging that those choices exist. And any new player of significant size will have to deal with many of the exact same issues.