Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A New Model?

According to IHE, Tiffin University and Altius Education -- the former a small traditional college, the latter a for-profit -- have combined forces to form a third entity (Ivy Bridge) that offers an all-online general studies Associate’s degree. The for-profit runs enrollment management and student services, and the traditional college is in charge of faculty and curriculum. Warming my heart, the traditional college has a renewable-contract system for its full-time faculty.

I read this with considerable interest.

At one level, it seems like the perfect solution. Use private-sector money to fund operations, but leave the academic decision-making to the academics. On its face, it’s close to the dream model of any college: write me a large check and shut the eff up. Since American culture has decided that pooling large sums of money in the public sector is immoral, but pooling historically unprecedented sums of money in the private sector is wise and virtuous, getting that large check from the private sector seems like a minor adjustment to restore the more appealing parts of the status quo ante. Replace state money with private money and get back to work. After all, as the robber Willie Sutton said of banks, that’s where the money is.

As an academic administrator whose roots and loyalties are to and within academia, I like the “Chinese wall” model of separating the funding from the teaching. I’d love to be able to confine my worries to the quality of delivery and the next area of curricular or pedagogical innovation, rather than constantly scouring travel requests for loose change. Sounds good to me.

(Of course, the thing about Chinese walls is that they get breached. Sooner or later, he who pays the piper will want to call the tune. As I discovered in my time at Proprietary U, the financial folks may be content to be hands-off while things are growing, but they tend to panic and demand changes when the growth cools. But that’s another issue.)

There’s an old joke among economists, who aren’t generally known for jokes. Two economists are walking through the quad. They spy what looks like a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk. As the first one bends down to pick it up, the second one says “don’t bother. If it were a real twenty, it would have been picked up by now.” I was reminded of that in reading this piece. If it were really that easy, why hadn’t it already been done?

Follow the money.

Tuition for a year of full-time study is $9,450. At my cc, tuition and fees total well below $4,000. (The article doesn’t mention whether fees are included in the $9,450.)

I think I found the twenty.

A little back-of-the-envelope math should take care of this. Tuition/fees at my cc constitute over half of the operating revenues of the college. (State funding used to be the majority, but it has been dropping severely for several years no matter how you choose to measure it: percentage of college budget, percentage of state budget, inflation-adjusted dollars, or even nominal dollars. And don’t get me started on health insurance costs.) They’re currently well below 4k. If we were to nearly triple the tuition and fees, which already account for more than half of the budget, we’d have money to spare!

Of course, in this political climate, a public institution couldn’t get away with that. But since Americans give private institutions license to do all sorts of things that we’d never let publics get away with, the Ivy Bridge venture gets a pass. Its breathtaking innovation isn’t student service or online education or renewable contracts, all of which exist elsewhere; its breakthrough is in finding a fig leaf for the equivalent of a colossal, otherwise-unthinkable tuition increase. (Bristol Community College’s arrangement with Kaplan University for its Nursing program follows the same model: Bristol handles the academics, but students are charged Kaplan-level tuition.)

Gail Mellow, the President of LaGuardia Community College and one of my personal heroes, has argued for years that what community colleges need more than anything else is funding parity with four-year schools. The folks at Tiffin have found a way to run a two-year college while charging four-year tuition, and getting away with it. I salute their ingenuity and envy their budgets.

Over the long term, I expect to see many more arrangements similar to this one. Quality education is costly. It doesn’t necessarily need to be as costly as it is -- longtime readers have seen me pop off on that once or twice -- but doing it well costs money. Since Americans as voters have decided that it’s immoral to pay real money for any public service that doesn’t involve weaponry, but Americans as consumers have no problem paying for-profit companies several multiples of what their public counterparts charge for the same damn thing, the public-private partnership may give the ideological cover needed to find the funding to do this right. That comes at a cost, of course -- it amounts to a catastrophic regressive transfer of wealth from poor students to wealthy investors, as the students pay higher tuition to support profits for the investors -- but that seems to be the way Americans would prefer to do it. The price people are willing to pay to sustain an ideology should not be underestimated.

Of course, we could just fund publics at reasonable levels, paid for through progressive taxation, and siphon off some of the windfall gains of the wealthy to support quality institutions that don’t burden students with backbreaking debt. Hell, while we’re at it, we could divert money from wars of choice to, say, high-quality subsidized preschools or affordable housing.

Sorry, I slipped into “Swedish” mode for a minute there. I actually wish Ivy Bridge well. It’s not a pretty hybrid, but it may be a more sustainable model in this culture than anything else that has come along. That says more about the culture than it does about the college, but I’ll take what I can get.