Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Charity and Sustainability

I don't usually do followup posts, but this topic seems to need one.

In higher ed, there's no such thing as fundraising. Instead, there's 'development,' or, in more sophisticated quarters, 'institutional advancement.'

Traditionally, community colleges haven't done much in the way of courting donors. Instead, we've been funded mostly by state and/or local governments, and tuition. (In California, they banned tuition per se, so instead they call it 'fees.') As a result, we've been able to stay pretty clearly focused on the two biggest tasks at hand -- workforce development and transfer preparation -- and to keep our costs under relative control, compared to the rest of higher ed.

(Check out this piece on a study of rising tuition rates. Nationally, the 'true cost' of attending a cc went up a little over three percent last year, which isn't wildly out of line with inflation. The same cannot be said of four-year colleges and universities.)

In my more cynical moments, I think there's a correlation between increased reliance on private philanthropy (or development, or advancement) and high rates of tuition increase. The connection, I think, comes from the attention deficit disorder that targeted philanthropy brings.

Philanthropic giving is cyclical, or tidal, or even random. It fluctuates with external events, the poignancy of available stories (and the identity of the folks to whom the stories happen -- diseases that befall Senators' grandchildren tend to get pretty good funding), the win-loss record of the higher-profile sports teams, political scandals, PR scandals, and probably sunspots. Big Donors like to make Big Splashes, and you don't make a big splash by contributing operating funds for ongoing concerns. They like the concept of 'seed money,' which ties up future operating funds indefinitely.

While the Big Donors go spreading their seed, we make decisions based on what we expect will be sustainable over the long term. Unsurprisingly, after decades of that difference, the cost spread between cc's and four-year schools is widening, even as the quality gap is narrowing or, in some cases, inverting. We make decisions based mostly on what we think will still make sense in ten years. Other schools -- I'm not naming any names here, you know who you are -- make decisions based on the Big Donor's tastes. When the Big Donor has gone to that development office in the sky, though, his legacy is still around, making demands on the operating budget. The college responds in two ways: raise tuition to cover the short term, and court even more donors. This time will be different! And the spiral continues.

I'm concerned that with public sector support for higher ed falling by the wayside, the cc's will fall into some of the same traps as the four-year colleges. He who pays the piper calls the tune; if we start courting donors in a serious way, then we have to start courting donors in a serious way.

None of this is meant to disparage donors. They give voluntarily, and I'm grateful for it. Charity arises from many impulses, some of them genuinely admirable. And it would be silly to deny that real good has been done, and will be done.

But there's no substitute for sustainable, predictable operating funding. That's what makes really successful programs (and reasonably successful cost control) possible over the long term. To the extent that we're being pushed away from predictable -- by which I mean public -- support, and towards philanthropic funding, I'm concerned that we'll start making some of the same mistakes I've seen elsewhere. The tuition gap will start closing, to nobody's benefit. We'll try to make up the difference by beefing up our development office. Then, in a few years, we'll have to answer some very angry questions about out-of-control tuition increases. You heard it here first.