Sunday, July 31, 2016


Cognitive Dissonance

Last week I joined 39 other community college people at an Aspen Institute workshop at Stanford.  I’m still recovering from the cognitive dissonance.

The workshop was terrific -- I’m still chewing on a lot of the material, and some of it will find its way here as I process it -- and it was great to get to know colleagues from across the country who share my sense that it doesn’t have to be this way.  As at many conferences, the offhand comments in between sessions were often the most important ones of the day.  And I learned again that jet lag is real.

That said, it was hard to have serious discussions of equity and achievement gaps on a campus of a university with a twenty-two billion dollar endowment.

If you haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast contrasting Stanford with Rowan University, check it out.  As a community college person in New Jersey, I have mixed feelings about Rowan, but that’s irrelevant here; Gladwell makes the case that the same size donation would make a much larger social difference at a Rowan than at a Stanford.  Having seen both, I have to agree.  Wealthy institutions are not immune to the law of diminishing returns.

At one point, we got a campus tour from an official Stanford tour guide.  The campus was a mostly lovely blend of Spanish and Modern Techie architecture, and the weather was glorious.  We saw some astroturf on campus -- seriously, that’s not a metaphor -- which the tour guide suggested was a way of handling drought.  To our enduring credit, we all managed to keep straight faces as the tour guide bragged about the diversity of the Stanford student body.  

I don’t think he quite understood his audience.

Later in the week, we checked out the “d-school,” which a loquacious professor explained is neither about design, nor a school.  It’s an enormous blend of a makerspace and a romper room.  They use it for “design thinking.”  The walls and ceilings are festooned with polaroids (or quasi-polaroids) of the students who work there, each with a name and a major.  During a long lecture about how they don’t lecture, I started playing a variation on “Where’s Waldo?,” scanning the polaroids for faces of black people.  As we passed one of the many glass-walled workspaces, an intense young woman came out to tell us “we’d prefer if you didn’t come in.”  I thought her comment a bit on-the-nose, but there it was.

For the rest of the week, I kept hearing comments like “can you imagine what we could do with just one percent of that endowment?”  I could, actually.

Borrowing a bit from Gladwell, if we assume a five percent return on a 22 billion dollar endowment, that’s a little over a billion dollars per year.  That’s before adding the first dollar of tuition income, any new research support, or new donations.  (The guide bragged about their generous financial aid, which sounded impressive until I did the math.  Undergrad tuition, fees, room, and board is 68k per year.  He mentioned that the typical aid recipient gets about 30k of “scholarship” from Stanford.  By my math, that means the typical aid recipient is on the hook for another $38,000 per year.  I couldn’t do that, and I don’t know many people who could.  A full-time student at Brookdale would spend about $5,000 per year on tuition and fees, and even at that level, about 40 percent of our students get Pell grants.)  Every tuition dollar is on top of the billion dollars of passive income.

According to the tour guide, Stanford has about 7,000 undergraduates and about 8,000 grad students.  (I didn’t write down the exact number, and he was rounding, but these seem to be in the ballpark.)  Brookdale has about 13,000 students on the credit side.  Stanford gets over a billion dollars a year in baseline income before it counts the first dollar of tuition.  Brookdale has no endowment, and an operating reserve that would show up as rounding error at Stanford.  It charges less than ten percent of what Stanford charges, and has an operating budget -- salaries, utilities, everything -- that comes to less than ten percent of what Stanford “earns” in a year before taking in the first dollar of tuition.

Put differently, we could go to “free community college” for every student at Brookdale for less than a twentieth of Stanford’s annual rentier income.  It would affect roughly the same number of people.  The key difference is that the Brookdale students have fewer other options.  Alternately, its annual rentier income -- remember, this is one university -- would cover free community college for the entire state of New Jersey, with money left over.  We could improve full-time faculty and staff ratios, beef up higher-cost vocational programs, and improve the lives of thousands of students and their families.  

Gladwell’s point is about the “capitalization rate,” or what the rest of us would call a rate of return for society.  A donation to a school that runs lean will make a much larger difference than a donation to a place like Stanford.  

I knew that, but knowing it and seeing it aren’t the same.  Stanford is beautiful, preposterously well-funded, and entirely separate from the realities that the community college people live. To the extent that elite policymakers hail from there and places like it, I can see why they keep getting the basics wrong.  They’re extrapolating from an outlier.  A colleague in the program responded to one speaker by thanking him for the cognitive dissonance.  I’d like to thank Stanford for providing an entire week’s worth.

Just in case anyone wants to know, here's a link to a list of the 100 universities (worldwide) with the largest endowments:

The six richest are:
•1 Harvard University — $32.7 Billion. ...
•2 University of Texas System — $25.4 Billion. ...
•3 Yale University — $23.9 Billion. ...
•4 Stanford University — $21.4 Billion. ...
•5 Princeton University — $20.7 Billion. ...
•6 King Abdullah University of Science and Technology — $20 Billion.

My former employer (Indiana University) ranks 57th, with an endowment of $1.57 billion; almost all of the income from the endowment is spent either in Bloomington or in Indianapolis; almost none is spent on the 5 regional campuses (Gary, South Bend, Richmond, Kokomo, New Albany). (The IU Foundation uses a 4% payout rate, which is still over $60 million a year.)
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Although you were looking at a private university, that should give you a taste of what a large public flagship does with its larger per-student state budget PLUS an endowment and the ability to partially fund major functions like libraries with the overhead from grants. You see both in that list Don Coffin posted. And since I know where some major public instutions get their major donations (i.e. highly public individuals), I wonder what a bit of shaming of both progressive (access for all) and conservative (entrepreneurship as a way up) could do as a way of putting those funds to better use.

So, to repeat your frequent mantra, two things would make a huge difference: (1) True equity in state funding of freshman and sophomore general education courses from CC to flagship. This is carefully phrased to allow developmental courses to be funded at a different level, to isolate that political battle from this one and perhaps show who is on the side of those least served by K-12 schools. (2) More equity in large donations. I don't expect alumni can be discouraged from giving to their alma mater, but the biggest donors often give to a range of universities.
These observations are a particularly blatant example of comparing apples and oranges. You know, there's all that stuff Stanford does--world class scientific and biomedical research, for instance--which costs a fair piece of change and isn't a feature of community colleges. (And don't say it's all paid for with NSF or NIH grants. Universities have to make major investments in order to be in a position to compete for those grants.)
You've mentioned that your CC held free all-day workshops for seniors to provide "continuing education", while at the same time providing relevance of CCs to key demographics of the electorate. Could you do something similar for policymakers/politicians and their immediate family? Provide X number of free credits per term (e.g. dual enrollment in high school, or straight up free credits) to elected representatives at the state and federal level that represent your college's electoral district? I understand many politicians will want their kids to go the Stanfords like they did, but even they must be tempted by the opportunity to save 68k for 2 years if they can do their gen eds at their district's CC. I can name a number of universities who have, or had until recently, programs where the spouse and kids of a faculty member received substantial tuition discounts (50-100%), so similar programs already exist.

If people relate to their university experience, then CC's stand to benefit from having elected representatives who relate to their CC. As IntheProvinces pointed out, major uni's do things CCs don't (i.e. substantial research commitments by their faculty); the flip side of that is that CCs do things that major uni's don't. Could you attract politician's interests in that way?
I think that giving politicians and their families free tuition could be construed as lobbying with public funds and deliberately creating conflicts of interest. But that wouldn't preclude hosting a legislators' leadership conference or similar activity that got them out to campus.
My husband went to a CC and transferred to Cornell. We are of the opinion that it's a much better investment to give money to his CC than Cornell, because our donations will do more good. If more kids started at CCs then maybe more graduates would have that attitude. How to persuade them? I'm not sure.
My husband went to a CC and transferred to Cornell. We are of the opinion that it's a much better investment to give money to his CC than Cornell, because our donations will do more good. If more kids started at CCs then maybe more graduates would have that attitude. How to persuade them? I'm not sure.
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