Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Chronicle and Community Colleges

The October 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed has a special section devoted to community colleges. I'm always happy when the Chronicle takes a break from its all-Harvard-all-the-time default mode and notices the single largest sector of higher education in America. We're so important, we actually rate the 'B' section!

The articles in the supplement vary in quality, and there's definitely something to be said for them as a group. But if you read the whole thing cover-to-cover (I seriously need to get a life), you'll get a very confused view of what community colleges are and should be.

For example, a featured piece, “At a Growing Number of Community Colleges, Fund Raising Is No Longer Optional,” notes (correctly) in passing that

While four-year colleges often solicit donations to pay for new buildings or to endow faculty chairs, community colleges have historically focused on raising money for scholarships.

Since tuition is a fraction of what it costs to educate a student, the net impact of scholarships on our bottom line is negligible.

Several pages later, an opinion piece by a fund-raising consultant (!) titled “Why are Community Colleges so Slow to Jump on the Fund-Raising Bandwagon?” answers its own question by blaming, in order, “inbreeding,” “identity,” “equity,” “introversion (?),” “weak trustees,” “weak presidents,” and “inadequate fundraising staffs.” Notably absent from the list is any discussion of what the fundraising actually achieves for the college. As long as the funds have to go to student scholarships, the net financial gain for the college is not worth the effort (in cold financial terms).

Having been exposed to colleges of all different genres, I can say with confidence that cc's have no monopoly on inbreeding, identity, introversion (?), or weak internal leadership. What we do have a monopoly on is incredibly cheap tuition. Lower tuition means lower value to scholarships. Since most cc's, as a matter of policy, don't raise funds for construction or endowed chairs or operating budgets, the net payoff for us for fundraising is nothing close to what it is for four-year colleges or universities. Ad hominem attacks usually betray a lack of understanding; if you want to understand, look at the incentives.

The confusion doesn't stop there. In terms of curriculum, two articles laud study abroad and honors programs, respectively, suggesting that they convey academic respectability on cc's. A few pages later, a former cc president has an article (“The 4 Lessons that Community Colleges Can Learn from For-Profit Institutions”) suggesting that we drop all that “general education” crap and develop pure employment degrees, just like the incredibly impressive for-profits. So we should be more like four-year colleges, except that we should be less like them. Alrighty then.

(Unlike the author of that piece, I've actually worked as a dean in both a for-profit and a cc. He paints an unrecognizably rosy picture of the for-profits. For one thing, he assumes that all the major for-profits have rigorous dress codes for students. Um, no. Nope. Huh-uh. He also neglects to address the very real pressures to maintain and improve student retention at for-profits; he takes the “employers are the real customers” argument entirely too seriously. In this, as in so many things, an anonymous informant will show us the way: Follow the Money. For-profits are purely tuition-driven, and they behave accordingly. Employers are nice, but students write the checks. In my days at Proprietary U, I received a weekly spreadsheet listing the highest-attrition sections, with instructor names, and with instructions to get rid of instructors who showed up on that list too often. You don't hit your profit targets by dismissing your customers. Maybe if the Chronicle commissioned writers who had actually worked in both settings, it would get more of the details right. But where to find such a person?)

So the problem with cc's is that we're not something else. We're not four-year colleges, and we're not for-profits. Apparently, we're supposed to be both. And charge less than either.


Here's a thought: we're a genre unto ourselves. As implied in the name 'community' college, cc's vary tremendously based on the communities in which they're located. In the more affluent communities, we have a heavier 'transfer' orientation; in the more strapped communities, by and large, we have a more 'vocational' bent. Some cc's have tenure and academic rank and faculty unions; some don't. What we all share is unrealistically cheap tuition, open-door admissions, and close ties to our local communities. We don't spend money on football teams, lavish dorms, climbing walls, or the other late-Roman ornaments that festoon so many four-year campuses. We spend it on teaching, and we're proud of that. To that extent, maybe the other sectors should imitate us!

I'm not actually taking issue with some of the recommendations in the supplement. Regular readers of this blog know that I like Honors programs, I like merit scholarships, and that I've been recommending for some time that cc's start raising money for purposes other than scholarships. (The real danger there, which none of the articles addressed, is that revenue-strapped state and local governments will use the availability of outside funding as an excuse to cut ours. Perhaps one reason cc's foot-drag on fundraising is because we see it as long-term suicide? My cc actually had its funding cut a few years ago when its reserve got “too big.” The incentives were loud and clear. Follow the Money.) And if the Chronicle manages to get some serious discussion going on ways to make cc's both more viable and more valuable, I'm all for it.

A little attention to detail might be nice, though.