Wednesday, July 06, 2005

It Used To Be About the Music, Man...

A few years ago, I was hopelessly addicted to Behind the Music. Every episode was the same – rags-to-riches, followed by sin, fall, and redemption. Music, sex, and drugs; why it went off the air is beyond me. One of the clichés (and there were so many!) was that at some point in each episode, a disgruntled band member would be seen in archival footage, complaining to the lead singer that “It used to be about the music, man.” Upon achieving success, the band lost sight of its muse, indulged in most of the deadly sins, and lived like 70’s Elvis. Perfidy, conflict, and (worst of all!) weight gain ensued. Rehab, redemption, and comeback (often in Branson) by the end of the hour.

Although academia is a good bit less colorful (and less well funded!), there’s a similar dynamic here. Public colleges and universities were usually founded (or absorbed by the state) to serve some sort of larger public purpose. This is especially true of community colleges, where the mission is more focused than at the ‘comprehensive’ midtier colleges and universities. The particular purpose varied from college to college – many were started to train teachers, others focused on agriculture and technology, and others developed specialties in lower-pay professions, like training police officers or nurses. As public institutions, they had to keep it cheap in the beginning (hence all the cinderblock), and funding increases over the years have, predictably, fallen behind the pace of technological advance in the areas in which we’re supposed to train students.

Most of the community colleges in my state (and I know my state isn’t unique in this) are facing a conflict between the public purpose for which they were founded, and their own needs for institutional survival. It used to be about the music, man…

Nursing is the clearest example. There’s a terrible nursing shortage in this state (and across the country), and we’re the single largest producer of new nurses in our area. Providing a steady supply of well-trained nurses is a valuable public function; nurses are socially useful, they often come from the ranks of the marginally-employed, and the demand isn’t likely to fade away anytime soon. When we take a struggling single mom who works at Jiffy Lube and train her as a nurse, we improve her life, as well as the quality of life for everyone in our area. Everybody wins, except…

We lose a staggering amount of money on every nursing student we educate.

In flush times (such as they were), we could eat the loss. When the state was taking in more tax receipts than it knew what to do with, we had enough of a cushion that we could absorb the losses and still maintain the rest of the college tolerably well. Moreover, in flush times, demand for nursing programs is relatively low, since other (less strenuous) options for making ends meet are available.

Since Bush took office and the economy tanked, though, demand for the nursing program has skyrocketed, and our state funding has been dead flat for several years.

So we have a conflict: we can expand our nursing capacity to meet the expressed public need (and the hospitals are strongly in favor of that), or we can pay our bills.

In the early stages of the conflict, we go after the low-hanging fruit: adjunct-out the positions of liberal arts faculty when they retire, and pour the savings into the gaping maw of the nursing program. Cut out-of-state travel, make the office holiday party potluck, that sort of thing. This buys you a year, maybe two.

We’re past that. You can only adjunct-out so far before you begin to see a tailspin in quality (and a consequent jump in student attrition), and I suspect that, in many departments, we’ve taken that strategy just about as far as we can. Food and toner budgets just don’t add up to much, and there are certain costs of doing business that you just can’t skimp. (“Who needs snow removal? Abraham Lincoln used to walk to school…”)

(Annoyingly, health care also bites us on the other end: annual double-digit percentage increases in health insurance costs chew up the budget like Pac-Man run amok.)

We’ve hit the point where most of our academic decisions are predicated on profitability. If a new program looks likely to turn a profit, that will help us feed the beast. If not, well, sorry.

This, at a nonprofit. It used to be about the music, man…

Historically, demand for nursing programs (and health profession programs more broadly) has been cyclical. We’re a tenure-based institution. That means that if we expand to meet the need at the peak of the cycle, we’re left with costly, unused overhang when the cycle contracts. When we mention this to outside agencies (hospitals, politicians), they usually mutter something about ‘flexibility,’ then quickly change the subject.

So we muddle through, expanding the program more than we can afford but less than the hospitals want, turning some good students away, and hollowing out everything else to pay for it. Meanwhile, just to pay the bills, we raise tuition by more than our mission suggests is a good idea.

Redemption? I don’t know how. A Democratic administration would be nice, since we’d stop blowing money on tax cuts for the rich and wars of choice and start spending it on infrastructure and services, but I’m not holding my breath. A sudden outburst of philanthropy would help, but every time we cut the top marginal tax rate, we reduce the incentive for charitable giving by reducing the value of the tax deduction. (I have never, never, heard this point made in national political debate, but it’s mathematically irrefutable.) An economic boom would help, but at this point we’d probably just spend the revenues on another war.

Maybe we could take on corporate sponsorships, like baseball stadiums. The Coca-Cola Community College seems unlikely to work, though, since as soon as some tenured professor said something controversial somewhere, the sponsor would pull the plug.

I don’t know what the community college equivalent of Branson is, and I hope not to find out. It used to be about the music, man…