Sunday, March 27, 2016

No, Not New York City...

We know that the journalism industry is changing.  General-circulation newspapers and local television news programs are struggling, while web-based sites -- often specific to a single industry, such as IHE -- are growing.  The economics of distribution have changed, so now it’s easier to make a profit in a niche.  With so many good niche providers thriving, it’s difficult for purveyors of the old just-enough-for-everyone model to stay afloat.

But with the shift in production has come a shift in geography.  As Joshua Benton’s recent piece notes, jobs in the new journalism are much more concentrated on the coasts than jobs in the old journalism are.  In a recent survey, almost 40 percent of the digital journalism jobs in America were physically based in the New York City and D.C. metros.  That’s compared to less than 10 percent of the jobs in television journalism.  Terre Haute may have a local news team, but it probably doesn’t have a freestanding digital news provider of any size.

That shift has consequences for the industry, of course.  It tends to feed a certain provincialism, for one thing; if the top, say, five cities in America become the default frame of reference, then we’ll start to misunderstand most of America in some pretty dramatic ways.  (For perspectives from the middle, I recommend following “Belt” magazine -- named for the rust belt -- and the freelance journalist Sarah Kendzior, based in St. Louis.  Her insights on Ferguson, for example, have been invaluable.)  And it puts rookie journalists in a bit of a bind.  You can go where housing is affordable but jobs are scarce, or you can go where the jobs are and pay ungodly sums for housing.  You want a job and an affordable home?  Sorry.

I bring it up here for two reasons.  First, as someone who grew up around Rochester, New York, I know well the feeling of being overshadowed and overlooked.  As far as the rest of the country knows, “New York” is a city, not a state.  But it is a state, and the folks who live hundreds of miles from the city have valid concerns, even if they almost never get noticed.  But more importantly for present purposes, what Richard Florida calls “spikiness” runs counter to the way that community colleges, as a sector, are organized.  

Most community colleges were established during a ten-year spread from the early sixties to the early seventies.  That was roughly the peak of the postwar distributed-production model.  In the 70’s, the cities now seen as the powerhouses of the economy and culture were considered crime-ridden embarrassments.  Growth was in the suburbs of smaller cities.  Community colleges were ways to bring the rapidly-growing provinces into the larger economy and culture.  An industry comprised of hundreds (eventually, over a thousand) local outposts all around the country reflected where the country was at the time.

Now, though, most of the growth is concentrated in a few places.  Having spent much of the last decade in western Massachusetts, I can attest that the economy of Springfield is not the economy of Boston.  But Hampden County -- home of Springfield -- has as many community colleges as Suffolk County, the home of Boston.  That’s a good thing, in many ways, but it reflects decisions made under very different conditions.

Because community college funding is substantially local in many states (though not Massachusetts), the increasing austerity of the provinces stands in severe contrast to the resources available in the top five cities.  CUNY’s ASAP program is the envy of many of us, and it will remain so as long as it includes subway passes.  Most of us don’t have the option of subway passes, and bus routes are often far less than what students actually need.  It rests on a foundation of public wealth that simply isn’t present in most places.

To the extent that wealth becomes more geographically concentrated, the argument for a larger Federal role in funding becomes stronger.  If we want people in non-elite locations to have meaningful chances to thrive, we have to make sure that they have access to quality higher education.  Right now, the major source for Federal funding for community colleges is financial aid, which colleges can only capture through tuition.  Direct operating aid would allow colleges to capture more Federal support without raising prices.  That may have been superfluous when the economy was more evenly spread, but now with entire regions still waiting for an economic recovery to set in, the need is clear.

Or, we could just write off entire swaths of the country.  That’s the default path.  

Whether the concentration of wealth and opportunity in the few top metros is cyclical or the new normal isn’t clear yet.  But at a basic level, the difference boils down to whether we should neglect the middle for a few decades, or forever.  That’s a lousy choice.  Let’s make a different one.  Removing operating funds from the student pass-through, and then increasing them, could make free community college a sustainable reality in places that really need it.  After all, there are a lot more Terre Hautes in America than there are New York Cities.