Friday, January 30, 2009

Efficiency and Mission

A few days ago we got word of the latest round of state funding cuts. I've literally lost track of the number of cuts we've taken this year, but the cumulative impact is drastic. Worse, we got the first inkling of the likely cut for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, and it will make this year's cuts look minor.

Given a reluctance to pass the brunt of the cuts on to the students in the form of tuition/fee increases, we've cut spending dramatically, and are readying to cut even more. What makes this interesting is that we've hit the inflection point at which a difference of degree becomes a difference of kind.

Every part of the college has taken hits: athletics, academics, student life, marketing, everybody. On the academic side, until now we've mostly been able to get by with the usual playbook: cut travel, replace departing full-time faculty with adjuncts, and subject any purchase requests to Inquisition-level questioning. We've put out the call for voluntary unpaid leaves, efficiency improvement suggestions, and the rest of the usual tricks. The brunt of the impact of the cuts so far has fallen on the evergreen disciplines -- English, history, etc. -- since it's easier to find adjuncts there than in other parts of the curriculum.

We've hit the limits of that approach, and now we're gearing up for some not-very-much-fun conversations about program eliminations. Over the next few months, we'll be looking at whose programs to cut, and therefore, who to lay off. Instead of giving everybody in the boat smaller rations, we'll start throwing some people overboard to save the rest.

Perversely enough, this actually bodes well for the evergreens. Every degree program has an English comp requirement, so there's no way we'd eliminate the English department. Certain disciplines are ubiquitious throughout the curricula, cheap to teach, and popular with students: psychology, history, sociology. Math, like English, is universally required, and relatively cheap to teach (though it's not terribly popular). While these areas can be relatively easy to water down, to a point, they simply can't be eliminated.

But the occupational programs with one or two full-time faculty, few or no adjuncts, low enrollments, and significant capital costs are in serious trouble. Those areas can't really be watered down, since they're already pretty much running at skeleton crew level (and adjuncts would be hard to find anyway). There, either we do the program or we don't. And if we don't, even tenure won't save you.

In the popular imagination, hard-headed reality dictates that occupational programs are more worthwhile than the 'fluffy' academic stuff. The popular imagination is wrong. Actually, the occupational programs are far more expensive for us to run. The only way we can sustain them, to the extent we do, is by cross-subsidizing them with profits from the 'fluffy' academic courses. History subsidizes Nursing. When we come under extreme economic pressure, we go back to basics, and that means the liberal arts. They're the only parts of the college that pay for themselves. That may seem like a betrayal of public purpose, but if we don't survive, we won't serve any public purpose at all. If you want the boutique-y stuff, I say to the taxpaying public, feel free to pay for it. In the meantime, we'll do what we have to do.

Of course, we'd rather avoid the problem altogether by improving revenues, which necessarily involves increasing enrollments. (I don't see aid improving anytime soon, and the philanthropic sector isn't recession-proof, either.) Increasing enrollments happens in two ways: increased admissions and better retention of those who are already there. The recession is giving us increased admissions, and that helps. (When the job market tanks, the opportunity cost of going back to school drops.) But improving retention is harder.

Simply put, each additional retention gain is harder than the one before it. Each one becomes more resource-intensive, as you move from simple stuff (getting the course schedule right) to harder stuff (improving financial aid and the bookstore) to the really expensive stuff (tutoring, academic support, increased counseling). Each new layer of retention is more expensive and difficult than the one before it. At a certain point, additional retention isn't financially worthwhile.

As with programs, so with students. At a certain point, the lifeboat is full.

The numbers on this are pretty clear, and the short-term logic is pretty tough to counter. But there's that matter of 'mission.' The point of a community college, first and foremost, is to serve people who don't have other options. We don't turn away people with other options, of course -- the whole point of open admissions is that you don't turn away anybody with a demonstrated ability to benefit -- but the primary reason we're here is to help the folks who most need it.

By definition, though, the needy are inefficient. A student who shows up prepared for college-level work, passes everything the first time without tutoring, and has his personal life together is remarkably cheap to educate, especially in the liberal arts. A student who has academic skills deficits, who needs counseling, and who attends part-time for several years is much higher-maintenance, and therefore more expensive.

When times are relatively flush, we can do some justice to both efficiency and mission. Now, we're being forced to choose efficiency. Fortuitously enough, the lowest-maintenance students also tend to be the ones most likely to take the traditional transfer-oriented liberal arts classes, so we're being pushed in the same direction by different forces. The stars are aligning for a back-to-basics movement, and an upscaling of our student body.

I'm just concerned that too much efficiency compromises our reason to exist.