Thursday, February 08, 2007

Right Idea, Wrong Reasons

An alert reader sent me a link to a conservative webzine piece titled “The Cheap Way Out,” which suggests offering full scholarships to cc's for high school students who have completed all of their academic requirements by the end of their junior year. As the title suggests, the core of the proposal is financial.

[I]n most states, the two year tuition at a community college is actually less than the cost of the senior year of high school. In my home state of Connecticut, for example, the per pupil cost for the fourth year of high school ranges from a low of $7,911 in Bridgeport to more than $16,000, in affluent Weston, while a full scholarship to any of the Nutmeg State's twelve community colleges is only $5,000.

First, a fundamental correction. You can't compare per-pupil spending in a high school to tuition at a community college. Tuition covers only a portion – in my cc's case, about half, which is more than most cc's nationally -- of our per-pupil costs. The rest comes from government aid – in the case of my cc, a blend of state and county funds. Assuming a similar percentage in the article's example, the per-pupil cost for a cc would be about $10,000, which would place it much closer to the cost for high schools. If you pour more students into cc's, and their tuition covers only half the cost of educating them, the other half will have to come from somewhere. There's no free lunch.

There's also the cost of textbooks. In high school, textbook costs are borne by the school. In college, textbook costs are borne by the student. For a real apples-to-apples comparison, you'd have to add textbook costs at the cc. That may sound trivial, but anybody who has gone textbook shopping lately can tell you they aren't cheap. For a student taking 5 classes per semester (a full-time load), textbook costs can easily break $1000 for a single year. (It varies somewhat by discipline. Based on my very unscientific observation, it seems to be worst in the sciences and foreign languages.)

The author goes on to suggest that students who don't want to miss out on, say, the final year of high school football should be allowed to count cc courses as part of their senior year of high school, retaining eligibility for high school extracurriculars. Not a bad idea, but that would finish off any savings left over from the correction above. If you could the full per-pupil cost at the cc, then add the per-pupil cost of athletics and extracurriculars at high schools, any tax savings would evaporate.

And that's not even touching transportation. Most public high schools have to provide transportation for students who don't live within walking distance (however defined). CC's don't; getting here is the student's problem. If the goal is to improve access for “the poor and minorities,” as the article suggests, these are precisely the folks least likely to have cars at age 17. Either CC's would have to get into the busing business (at astronomical cost), or high schools would have to bus the kids for us (and good luck getting them to agree to that).

Finally, and this is admittedly delicate territory, some students cost more than others. The higher-achieving kids are actually relatively cheap for a high school to educate. Special education is the financial Creature That Ate Pittsburgh. Since the high school would export its high achievers but be stuck with its special ed kids, its costs wouldn't drop by all that much.

Financially, I consider this a wash. It may accrue small savings here and there, and would probably add costs in other places. If the goal is to find a cheap way out, this ain't it.

That said, though, there's such a thing as being right for the wrong reasons. I love the idea of letting high-achieving high school seniors take courses at the local cc. My cc does that, and is rapidly expanding its outreach in that area. (In a couple of cases, we actually send instructors to the high schools to teach there, as a way of dodging the transportation issue. It can be tricky, though, since HS teachers' unions can get pretty snarky about anything that smells like a threat to their jobs.) We've found that high-achieving high school seniors, by and large, are fully capable of college-level work. They're usually shocked, at first, at the faster pace of college instruction, but that's fine – a bracing bit of academic rigor never hurt anyone.

College courses carry transcripted credit, which can make them more portable than AP or IB credits. This is especially true if the transcript doesn't contain some sort of asterisk, which it shouldn't. We can also offer courses that probably wouldn't enroll enough students at a single high school for an AP section. For example, one of our neighboring high schools has been inquiring about some of its seniors taking Japanese with us. They don't have enough to run Japanese themselves, but they're more than willing to offer the students dual HS/college credit for Japanese with us. The high school has the enrollments to run AP Spanish or History, but they can't have the curricular breadth at the college level that we can. That's not their mission. (They also haven't hired faculty, historically, with an eye towards teaching college level classes. Why would they? Obviously, we have.)

'Senioritis' can be a real problem. There's something perverse about letting kids slack off just before they go away to college – something about a false sense of security. If we replace a year of American Pie with a year of actual study, the academic in me is a happy camper. Let the kid learn to ramp up study speed before leaving home, so she isn't making both adjustments at once. That way, when she goes off to live in the dorms at Scary State U, she already knows at least some of what to expect. Works for me. Go for excellence, because excellence is worth going for. Just don't expect to save very much on the way.