Thursday, April 02, 2009

Canadian Cold Front

An alert reader referred me to this story in the Toronto Star.

Apparently, in response to loss of endowment income, the University of Toronto is considering moving to a prix fixe tuition plan. Every student would pay a flat tuition rate, regardless of the number of credits taken in a given semester. Students are calling it a left-handed tuition increase.

That would soooooo not work at a cc.

I honestly don't blame the students for being upset. Flat-rate pricing may or may not be reasonably okay for traditional-age, full-time students. My SLAC alma mater did that, but with a rigidly traditional student body, it didn't matter much. But at a public institution, where access is part of the point, effectively charging a higher tuition rate for part-time students strikes me as badly misguided.

Part-time students already take a hit of sorts, in that per-credit tuition typically increases annually, so someone who takes four years to finish a 'two-year' degree absorbs three tuition increases rather than one. That's annoying, but there's a certain logic to it. This policy would pretty much eliminate part-time students altogether, and would encourage everyone else to take overloads so they could get through faster. That would lead to a very short-term increase in revenue, followed by a long-term decline, as students either drop out at higher rates (due to burnout) or graduate faster.

If part-time students leave, and full-time students take free overloads, then the university will actually have less revenue supporting the same amount of teaching. Even in purely mercenary terms, it's unlikely to work.

(And just imagine the howls of protest if students couldn't get into required classes, yet had to pay by the semester. "Sorry, kid, the senior seminar is full again. You'll have to try again next semester at full price." Yeesh.)

If the move is part of a deliberate strategy by the university to position itself as exclusively serving the upper tier of traditional students, it may make sense. But if not, it's singularly hamhanded, and exclusionary of the people who need services the most.

Demographic upscaling can be an effective survival move for an individual institution. Upper-income students use less financial aid, retain at higher rates, and are likelier to be plugged in to networks of potential donors. (All those social workers we've graduated over the years tend not to be huge donors, mysteriously enough...) If a particular university manages to gain cachet among the elite, it can leverage that into prosperity. NYU did that in the 1980's, for example. I'd argue that there's a low limit to the number of institutions that can do that, but if yours happens to pull it off, you get to live large for a while.

For cc's, though, even the attempt to do that would miss the point.

I'm happy to have elite students here, and glad that we have a rigorous and well-respected Honors program with an astonishingly good track record of transferring students to some places you've heard of. To the extent that the recession drives more high achievers here, if only for the cheap tuition, they may start to help us shed some of the cc stigma among the professional classes. That's great. And the teacher in me recognizes that sometimes it's refreshing to have a few high achievers in the class. I get that.

But those aren't the people who need public higher ed the most. If they didn't come here, they could go elsewhere. We're here for the people who have to work their way through school, for returning adults and kids who are the first generation to attend college at all. The whole point of taking public funding is serving the entire public, not just the ones who can afford to devote themselves to nothing but full-time study without economic strain.

I usually think of Canada as America with brains. But this idea is bad enough, and cold enough, that I think we're starting to rub off on them.