Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Buying Freedom

Although community colleges enroll more students than flagship state universities do, the flagship state universities hog most of the public attention. They have the football teams and the statewide constituencies, and nearly everyone in the state has heard of them.

Unfortunately, that often leads to political or policy decisions being made for entire state systems based on the circumstances of a single outlier campus.

This article struck me as yet another example of that. Following the example of Virginia, university leaders in several states are proposing a form of fiscal secession from their states. The idea is that in exchange for acceding to ever-greater budget cuts from the state, they will be granted much greater autonomy in decisionmaking. They’re essentially trying to buy their freedom.

In the context of a single campus, this may be making a virtue of necessity. If you expect to take a series of budget cuts anyway, you might as well at least get something back. And it’s certainly true that local decisionmaking can sometimes be more efficient than statewide, though I tend to think the numbers thrown around are on the high side of optimistic.

But a model that might, conceivably, make sense for a flagship would be a disaster for a community college.

Flagships are research-intensive, meaning that grant income is a significant revenue stream. They typically have dramatically higher tuition than do the community colleges around them. They have much more highly developed fundraising (“development”) operations. They also have armies of graduate students at the ready to do most of the undergraduate teaching. While continued budget cuts would hurt, state aid is already low enough in many cases that much of the pain has already happened.

Community colleges are different. Here, grant revenue is typically much lower, and what grant revenue that does exist is typically earmarked for very specific, narrow uses. (Many Federal grants now come with prohibitions against using their funds for “supplanting” local funds. In other words, they can only be used for add-ons; they can’t make up for cuts in base operations.) The fundraising arms are typically much less productive, and what money they do raise usually goes directly to student scholarships, rather than to the institution. (Perversely, that actually increases the incentive for colleges to cost-shift to students.) Cc’s don’t have their own graduate students to exploit, and don’t have the high-visibility sports programs to persuade the public to allow tuition to rise to flagship levels.

In this setting, whatever gains might be realized through relative autonomy would be more than swamped by the losses incurred by what amounts to privatization. Since federal grant money couldn’t be used for operations, and private philanthropy isn’t anywhere near what would be needed, the only remaining options would be service cuts and tuition increases. And it’s not like those both haven’t been happening for years already.

(It’s also hard to imagine that the alleged autonomy would last very long. As long as there are political points to be scored one way or the other, there will be interference. And the giant sucking sound from public money being hoovered by the plutocracy won’t suddenly stop just because subsidies go away. Next they’ll want PILOTs -- Payments in Lieu of Taxes -- and an end to student loan subsidies.)

It’s simply impossible to fulfill the mission of a community college without community support. A flagship that sells exclusivity can raise prices out of the range of most people and get away with it, but a community college that did that wouldn’t be a community college anymore.

Cutting red tape is nice, but not at this cost. I just hope the distinction between flagships and cc’s doesn’t get lost in the political debate. Unfortunately, it usually does.