Thursday, February 05, 2009

Man Bites Dog

My cc has been getting an unusual amount of local press attention lately. The press attention has been largely positive, and focused mostly on enrollment. Invariably, somewhere around the fifth paragraph, there's a passing acknowledgment that enrollment growth is occurring at the same time as state funding cuts, but the headline is always about growth.

In discussions with colleagues on campus, we're beginning to think it's because we're a 'man bites dog' story. Unlike almost every other institution around, we're growing. Annoyingly, we're growing enrollments while downsizing employees, but they tend not to focus on that. If you interpret 'enrollments' as 'sales,' then our sales are up. Almost nobody else around us, except for other public colleges, can say that. And the local press is so desperate for good news that it repeats this story with remarkable frequency.

The weird economics of public higher ed – in which a substantial chunk of our income is decoupled from our 'sales,' and actually goes down when sales go up – puts us in this awkward position. And the weird public perception of community colleges means that every time a reporter calls, we have to correct the story they've already written in their heads.

The story in their heads goes like this: In this recession, displaced workers are going back to school to upgrade their skills. (Interview salt-of-the-earth forty-year-old man who was recently laid off.) Community colleges are safe havens from The Great Recession. Education is truly the key to success. Back to you, Ted.

It's a nice story, and we get calls for quotes to help them write it. But it gets the big picture wrong.

The actual story goes like this: In this recession, parents' jobs are shaky, so they send their kids to the community college instead of the local private college to save money. (Contrary to the prewritten story, the average age of our students continues to drop.) As we shift to more traditional-age students whose orientation is to transfer, our major growth is in the liberal arts area. The “laid off 40 year old goes back to school” story is heartwarming, and sweet, and occasionally true, but it's a small and declining fraction of our world. The real story is the increasing use of cc's by middle class kids who use it to save money and transfer.

This is why stories like “Tuition Bubble” strike me as almost too asinine even to rebut. Pretentious U may charge too much, but it's hardly the only game in town. If you look at what cc's charge, the whole 'tuition bubble' argument collapses of its own absurdity.

(Assuming no financial aid or scholarship money of any kind, a full-time student at my cc now pays about one-third of what we paid for daycare for The Boy five years ago. If you want to look at the costs that are crippling families, look at that. Where are the stories about the daycare bubble?)

Unfortunately, public anger at Pretentious U winds up being taken out on us, since we're controllable and Pretentious U isn't. Predictably enough, that actually widens the resource gap between us and Pretentious U. Just at the moment when we're most needed, we're kneecapped.


I'm happy to have a part in helping people get their higher education started. Enrollment growth is a good thing. And both transfer and workforce-driven programs serve valid and valuable purposes. I'm just getting a little tired of reading the same half-baked man bites dog story (or its evil twin, the tuition bubble story) when it gets the essentials wrong.