Thursday, October 26, 2017
Karen Stout, the President of Achieving the Dream and a longtime community college president, made a comment at the #RealCollege conference that I haven’t been able to shake. She noted that between extended public austerity and the sources from which Boards of Trustees are often comprised, many public colleges are starting to behave like for-profits. They’re looking closely at the financial return on investment of any decision, with an eye towards maximizing surpluses. At a certain point, what starts off as self-defense or fiscal prudence can cross over into a perversion of the mission; colleges start to see students as means, rather than ends.
I was reminded of that in reading Thursday’s IHE story about public universities attracting a larger share of affluent and out-of-state students.
The primary appeal of out-of-state and affluent students is that they pay more. They also help with rankings, whether through higher SAT scores, higher completion rates, or whatever other statistical weight they carry. In other words, they serve the college’s purpose nicely.
But that’s backwards. Colleges are supposed to serve students.
Using students as means, rather than ends, makes it difficult to fulfill the social justice mission that colleges are supposed to serve. I’ll use food service as an example. Many colleges, including my own, have outsourced food service to for-profit vendors. The reasons are straightforward enough: food service typically wasn’t a strength of the institution, and there are companies that do nothing but food service. Going with a Sodexo (or a Subway) offers the prospect of replacing a mediocre product on which we lose money with a better product that also provides a revenue stream. I get that.
But it also makes it harder to provide free or reduced-cost food to low-income students who need it. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s proposal to extend the K-12 free lunch program to community colleges -- conceptually, a brilliant idea -- is harder to implement when food service has gone from an internal service to an external one that has to hit certain numbers. Food service is a low-margin business even without giveaways. The same is true of outsourced day care centers; if they have to cover their own costs and even make a profit, it’s hard to do that while still offering prices that struggling young parents can afford. That’s why private ones generally don’t.
Compare those services to, say, the campus library. Students don’t have to pay every time they use the library; they can use it whenever it’s open. The library has to stay within a budget, and we do gate counts and satisfaction surveys, but it doesn’t have to hit a profit target. That means it can offer displays or programs as services, even when those displays or programs aren’t as popular as some others might have been. It can focus on the mission.
To the extent that college budgets are more tuition-driven, they have to look more at either outsourcing or treating internal operations as if they were outsourced. That means losing the ability to make mission-based decisions in progressively more areas over time.
We sometimes talk about “for-profit” and “non-profit” colleges, but the distinction is starting to blur. It doesn’t have to; it’s a choice we’ve made as a society, seemingly without realizing it. For students with money, that may not matter much; in some ways -- I’m thinking better food -- it may even be an improvement. But for those without, it’s increasingly brutal.
I don’t particularly blame public universities for recruiting more out of state and/or affluent students; they’re being instrumentally rational within the existing rules. I’m saying we need to take a good, hard look at the rules. The students are worth it.