Monday, December 08, 2008

Affordability and Sustainability

One of my favorite aphorisms (I think it's Stein's law) states that anything unsustainable, won't be.

Several alert readers sent me links to this article from the Times, which, in turn, cites a report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The headline, ripped from the Department of the Obvious, states that college is becoming unaffordable. Unlike many reports, it looks at the true cost of college (that is, after financial aid), and measures it as a percentage of family income. Since the true cost includes housing, transportation, and books, even community colleges come off as relatively pricey. (Most cc's don't provide housing or meal plans for students, which is one reason that the sticker price is so much cheaper. Including those costs decreases the relative price advantage of cc's, though we're still cheaper.)

The method of this study strikes me as more useful than many. Lazy studies just look at the sticker price, which often gives a very misleading picture, since many students don't pay full freight. I'm not sure that counting the cost of living at home is entirely helpful, either; I tend to prefer measures of marginal cost. If you're already living at home anyway, the marginal cost of the local cc is truly lower. That can apply as well to four-year colleges with commuter populations.

Still, a few thoughts.

First, taking 'family income' as the baseline measure – an eminently fair real-world approach for most people – suggests a perfectly obvious rejoinder: the real issue is less the growing cost of college than the stagnation or decline in average family incomes. There's a much larger political and economic issue here that has little to do with higher education per se. The growth and acceleration of income and wealth inequality over the last few decades has put the squeeze on millions of people; college tuition is only one case of that. (Judging by what the obscenely wealthy are willing to pay in tuition for their kids, there's a great deal of running room here.) Reverse the New Gilded Age polarization of wealth, re-establish a stable middle class, and much of the sting of tuition will go away.

Still, even with saner macroeconomic policies, higher ed has some serious issues to face.

On a short-term, pragmatic level, I think it's painfully obvious that the various states need to become much more deliberate and focused about allowing students to transfer seamlessly from cc's to four-year public colleges and universities. Having fought this battle for years now, I can attest that real progress won't happen without legislation. It has to be mandated, or the four-year schools will foot-drag and sabotage the process, just as they have for decades. On the ground, this would have the effect of greatly reducing the effective cost of a four-year degree for the people who most need it.

On a longer-term level, I see two adjustments coming, both of which will bring pain.

First, I don't see a way around a shakeout. The nothing-special private colleges that subsist on high tuition and high discount rates are going to have a tough time surviving much longer. In a national market, many of them don't really have a compelling reason to exist. The elites will be fine; they sell exclusivity, and there's always a market for that. The publics serve a clear purpose, and as more upper-income kids are priced into the publics, they're losing some of their historic stigma. Colleges with clear and specific religious identities or programmatic niches can at least answer the question of why they exist. But the older, fair-to-middling private colleges and universities charge premium rates for average product. With online education making geography less determinative of access than it once was, I just don't see what some of these schools offer to justify their prices. And they don't have the resources to survive without those prices. Antioch was just the tip of the iceberg (although one could argue that it at least had a niche, in its way).

The other is that we'll start to see a decoupling of 'hours' or 'semesters' from 'credits' or 'degrees.' If you accept the definition of economic productivity as money generated over a given period of time, then there's simply no way (other than real inflation, or continued adjunctification, or just stuffing the rooms fuller) to increase the economic productivity of a three-hour class. As long as the product is defined in units of time, rather than, say, documented competencies, we'll be stuck in a productivity trap. (Even degrees are denominated in time -- “two-year degrees,” “four-year degrees,” and the like. We all know that these terms often don't describe reality, but they survive as normative anyway.) When the rest of the economy increases its productivity and we don't, our costs will spiral disproportionately. So far, higher ed has dealt with this by overproducing graduate students, then hiring them into the same old system for what amounts to tips. This eat-the-young strategy has allowed the system as a whole to procrastinate on serious structural change, but it hasn't solved the underlying problem, and it won't.

There's no easy or graceful way to re-denominate an entire system built on 'credit hours.' But 'credit hours' weren't handed down from God; they're just a bureaucratic construct, developed at a particular historical moment to solve a particular problem. (As we used to say back in the 80's and 90's, they're 'socially constructed.') That's all. They can be changed, and they'll have to be.

That's not to say that the change won't be wrenching. Collective bargaining agreements are built on credit hours, as are transfer agreements, faculty workloads, and tuition. Path dependence is real, and changing paths isn't easy. But to assume that we can just keep asking the middle class to take on greater and greater amounts of debt for the next fifty years simply denies reality. Even with saner public policy, we're probably at the outer limits of what the market will bear already.

It will take a tremendous amount of ingenuity to redefine higher education in ways that preserve its real value, rather than simply reducing it to on-demand job training. On good days, I imagine that a bunch of minds as clever as the American professoriate is uniquely well-suited to the task; on bad days, I gaze in wonder at the fetishization of the past, and the complete lack of self-awareness on the part of some otherwise brilliant people. It may be that what will change is the dream of widespread access, as higher ed retreats to its historical province as a privilege of the wealthy, and proprietary job-training becomes the norm for everyone else. I hope not, but that's where inertia would take us. My continuing hope is that crises like these will shift the conversation enough to break our inertia. It's a longshot, admittedly, but given the awfulness of the alternative, it's a longshot worth taking. The current system is unsustainable and, therefore, won't be.