Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Saving Alma Mater

As part of my bury-myself-in-books break, I finally got the chance to read Saving Alma Mater, by James Garland. Garland is the former President of Miami University of Ohio, a public research university, and the book is his attempt to address the economic crisis of higher ed in America. It's a hit-and-miss affair, but it scores some points and asks some of the right questions.

For example, it rightly points out that the time spent on shared governance doesn't appear in budgets. Since time is undervalued, it's overconsumed. (Anyone who has endured interminable committee meetings can see the truth of this.) Unless we're willing to assume that the time spent on committee work could not possibly have been spent in any other way -- uh, no -- then it makes sense to account for it in budgeting.

Garland also notes, correctly, that the trend for public higher ed's fiscal decline has been going on for forty years, and that the lobby-for-more-money strategy would have worked by now. The subtext of that observation, with which I agree wholeheartedly, is that it isn't just a matter of making good arguments to legislators. Plenty of very smart and savvy people have been doing that for a long time now; several decades of decline are the result. It's time to look to other strategies, like increasing the economic productivity of what we do.

However, in discussions of increasing productivity, Garland never gets below 30,000 feet. The specifics don't get much beyond the usual: target tiny and expensive programs for elimination, allow some institutions to specialize, and redirect funding from colleges to students to force colleges to compete with each other. (Garland's roots in the selective four-year sector are visible here.) But the core issue -- measuring work in 'credit hours,' or fixed units of time -- goes unaddressed.

By throwing his argument behind inter-campus competition, he takes a number of things for granted. For one, he implicitly assumes a geographically mobile student body with ample options. Anyone who has worked at a community college can tell you that geography still matters.

He also assumes that there won't be any kind of race to the bottom. Having worked in a for-profit college -- which he has not -- I can attest that standards rise and fall according to the economic need of the moment.

These aren't small issues. They cut to the core of his argument. If students are not realistically free to comparison-shop in meaningful ways, then the market discipline he expects won't come to pass. And while I'll certainly concede that inefficiencies abound in the current system -- longtime readers have seen me point out a few -- it's simply naive to assume that subjecting colleges to even purer market pressures won't have an impact on the core of the academic enterprise. It can't not. A tuition-driven college that finds itself circling the fiscal drain is unlikely to take kindly to hard grading. That's just a fact, though it's curiously absent from the book.

Although he denies the analogy, he essentially argues for a voucher program with a sliding scale.

Although he targets his system at four-year colleges -- noting cavalierly that community colleges may be collateral damage -- it actually makes even less sense at the four-year level than at the two-year level. At least community colleges know they're all about teaching, so accelerating the slide to a purely tuition-driven model might not change all that much either way. But four-year colleges, and especially universities with serious graduate programs, exist also to generate new knowledge. To do that, they adopt a number of expedients, including lower course loads for full-time faculty. (At my cc, full-time faculty teach 15 credits per semester, which is fairly standard for the sector.) The idea is to give them more time to do research.

If you completely do away with operating subsidies and default to being purely tuition-driven, what happens to the support for research? At that point, outside of a few hot fields, the economic argument for community-college-level teaching loads would be irrefutable. There may be an argument for that, but to set up a system that would inexorably lead that way without even acknowledging it is unconvincing, at best.

He's got some of the symptoms right, but the treatment wrong. If the issue is stagnant productivity (in the strictly economic sense -- cost per unit of instruction), then the answer is to improve productivity. You don't do that by just adding more work. Until now, we've done it by simply raising prices. The real way to do it is to decouple academic credit from units of time. A three-credit class takes the same forty-five hours of seat time that it took twenty years ago. If that's how long it takes to generate credits, then real productivity increases will forever be zero, by definition. (The only way to eke out gains would be to stuff ever more students into classes, to raise tuition faster than inflation, and/or to pay faculty less. For those keeping score at home, those are all very real.) When productivity doesn't increase in one sector, but it does in the economy as a whole, then basic arithmetic tells you that costs will rise faster in this sector than in the rest of the economy. And they have. For decades. Unremittingly.

And while I'm all for increased public support for higher ed, Objective F-ing Reality suggests that we can't expect a fire hose of dollars for the foreseeable future. It simply isn't gonna happen. Cary Nelson can opine all he wants about 'conversion' of millions of adjuncts to full-time status, but until someone ponies up the money, it's irrelevant. I've been voting Democratic since I've been voting, and even with the most community college friendly President in American history, one for whom I voted proudly and gladly, we're still sucking wind financially. The same productivity issues that hurt higher ed also hurt K-12, law enforcement, corrections, and health care. And unlike K-12, law enforcement, and corrections, we can charge customers. From a legislature's perspective, a college can turn to its alternate revenue stream, but an elementary school or a prison can't. I'm not happy about it either, but the force of economic gravity is both strong and clear. We continue to ignore it at our continued peril.