Friday, September 19, 2008

Perversely Enough, We're Upscaling

In conversation this week with someone who works in the 'student life' side of the college, I heard something I hadn't heard before.

I knew that recessions (or economic slowdowns, since I'm really not interested in splitting semantic hairs here) generally bring increased enrollments at cc's. The reasons are straightforward enough: the opportunity cost of education is lower when jobs are scarce, the need for a degree is higher when jobs are scarce, and our low tuition becomes much more attractive when things get precarious. This is old news. People who otherwise might have gone somewhere more expensive will take a second look at the local cc when money is an issue.

Unless – and this was the part I didn't realize – they're so ridiculously broke that the logic circles around. According to my source, who's in a position to know, some of our increasing number of homeless (or intermittently homeless) students are actually transferring to four-year schools earlier than they would prefer. The draw is financial aid for dorm rooms and meal plans.

Financial aid at the cc only covers tuition, fees, and a (low) estimate for books.* It doesn't do anything for living expenses, which aren't getting any cheaper. But financial aid at the nearby residential four-year colleges includes room and board. If you're intermittently homeless, the prospect of aid covering a place to live and a meal plan is nothing to sneeze at.

So the perverse impact of the economic downturn is that we get more people from the upper end of the economic scale, since they're playing it safer by choosing the low-cost option, and fewer people from the lower end, since we don't offer subsidized room and board. Perversely enough, we're upscaling.

Community colleges live a Keynesian existence. Our enrollments are aggressively counter-cyclical, even though our operating subsidies generally aren't. (Our philanthropic income generally isn't, either, so there's little relief on that front.) Increased enrollments bring increased tuition revenue, which helps offset the decreased public aid, but which puts additional strains on services and facilities. (Parking has been a limited exception this time around, since gas got so expensive. We're seeing much fuller buses than in the past, so the increased stress on the parking lots is less than would have been expected.)

Now we're experiencing a sort of counter-cyclical sociological shift, with more middle-class students and fewer really poor ones just when the economy is going South. The cars in the student parking lots are, on average, a little nicer than they were a few years ago.

I'll admit to feeling a little unsettled at the thought of some of our students applying to transfer just to have a place to live, but I can't argue with their logic.

Wise and worldly readers at other cc's – have you seen this on your campus?

*I'll admit to being intrigued at the prospect of a textbook rental program, at a predictable flat rate that financial aid could cover, but we aren't there yet. Perversely enough, bookstore profits are part of the college's operating budget, so we couldn't afford to cannibalize that too much.