Thursday, November 08, 2007

$100 Oil and Commuter Colleges

My cc, like most community colleges and many lower-tier four-year colleges, doesn't have dorms. Since it's located in suburbia, public transportation options are extremely limited and not very good. So most students, and almost all employees, drive. (A select few ride one of the rare buses.) We even refer to it as a commuter college.

Parking is an issue, which has always been true at every college known to man. But we've dealt with that forever, and have reached a sort of tolerable detente on it. I still think that anything tall and opaque (i.e. SUV's) should be segregated into a different lot, so the rest of us can actually see what's coming when we try to back out of our spaces, but that's another issue.

Now oil is coming close to $100 a barrel, which, sooner or later, is likely to trickle down to gasoline prices. (As I mentioned recently, I'm surprised that it really hasn't yet. But it will.) Some of that price runup is likely due to the monumental, world-historical idiocy of the Bush administration's foreign and fiscal policies, and may be remedied somewhat when we elect somebody worthy. But some of it, I think, is likely due to a combination of rising world demand for oil – especially in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – and the much-slower pace of new discoveries. Whether oil came from dinosaurs or lava or both, we're pumping it faster than the planet is making it. Even a President who understands the concepts of 'wars of choice' and 'balanced budgets' and 'peace dividend' will have her work cut out for her.

In other words, even if we as a country stop sabotaging ourselves, we as a college face a fundamental, long-term challenge to our business model. We're built on cars.

We cater to students who have to work part-time at low-paying jobs to get through school. As the low-tuition option, we attract the folks to whom low tuition is the most salient. Transportation is a major cost for our students. They often drive older cars of suspect reliability, and find themselves at the mercy of whatever repairs need to be made. Their jobs pay crap, and car insurance – especially for young males – is staggeringly expensive.* If the price of gas continues to climb substantially, eventually I wouldn't be surprised to see some of these students cut back, or drop out entirely.

Online instruction has something to be said for it in this respect, since the cost advantage of telecommuting (as opposed to standard commuting) only climbs as the price of gas climbs. But very few students take all-online schedules; most use an online class or two as part of their mix, to make the job-school juggle easier. They're still driving to campus three or four days a week. Unless there's a really dramatic embrace of all-online education, I suspect that the transportation-cost gains from this will be minor. (Theoretically, we could also move everything to a half-online, half-classroom 'hybrid' format, and run all the classroom classes, say, on Mondays and Tuesdays. But at this point, students avoid hybrid classes like the plague.)

There's also the question of the relevance of geographically-defined service areas to online education. Community colleges have specific geographic areas they're designed to serve, which makes sense if you assume that everybody drives to campus. But if you can log on from anywhere, how much sense does a geographic distinction make? If we embrace a more thoroughgoing online approach, I'd expect to see the whole concept of 'service areas' start to fade. The political implications are staggering.

Dorms are the classic solution. Park everybody on campus, let them walk to class, and cars become irrelevant. At Snooty Liberal Arts College, I didn't have a car at all for all four years.

But that only works when the college is either highly urban, or extremely wealthy. In a setting in which most students work off-campus for money, parking them in dorms doesn't really solve the problem. Instead of being stranded off-campus, they'd be stranded on-campus.

Dorms also bring with them the infrastructure needs, and student-life issues, that drive up the costs of four-year schools. Keep students stuck on campus, and they'll start demanding climbing walls and football teams and the rest of it; the costs will follow.

Public transportation will not be a viable large-scale alternative in suburbia for the foreseeable future. The travel patterns just aren't linear enough.

To the extent that transportation costs are factored into financial aid awards, we may be able to offset a very small amount of the impact. But even that money has to come from somewhere.

Am I missing the obvious? Or are we staring down the barrel of a serious long-term problem?

*Every so often, somebody proposes removing 'liability' insurance from individual drivers and tacking it onto gasoline as a tax. This strikes me as absolutely brilliant, since it moves insurance from a fixed cost to a variable one. Taking the bus half the time would reduce your insurance cost by half; right now, it reduces it not at all. As my economist friends like to say, you have to get the incentives right.