Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A World Without Community Colleges

In the wake of yesterday’s post, which prompted notes from several alert readers reminding me that other states (such as Pennsylvania) were just as bad as those I named, I’ve been thinking about how the country would work if it simply gave up on the model of public higher education.

That wouldn’t necessarily involve closing all the colleges, though it would some. I’m imagining instead what would happen if community and state colleges were essentially cut loose from public funding, and treated as private nonprofits. Since that’s clearly the direction we’re heading, it may be worth looking down the road a bit.

After all, one could argue, we have a large and impressive network of private colleges and universities, and a rapidly growing infrastructure of for-profits. Land-grant universities were a concoction of the mid-nineteenth century, and community colleges were a development of the twentieth. (By general agreement, the “first” community college, Joliet Junior College, was established in 1901.) So a world without public higher ed has existed before.

Private nonprofits still have a few advantages over their for-profit competitors. Even in the absence of direct subsidies, nonprofits enjoy tax-exempt status. My college, for instance, pays no property tax on its multi-acre campus. That’s a considerable savings, and I haven’t heard anyone go after that yet. Nonprofits can also solicit tax-deductible donations, which I expect will become more important in the coming years.

Presumably, the end of public subsidies for colleges would involve some thinning of their ranks. The combination of spending cuts and price increases would eventually become unsustainable for many. For others, survival would be a function of one (or more) of the following: geographic monopoly, clear programmatic identity, and/or narrowing of mission. (By “narrowing of mission” I mean mostly price increases that compromise the “access” function, though presumably it could also mean going selective.) I’d expect to see an enormous shift of enrollment from campus-based to online courses, with campus-based learning becoming a boutique product for the wealthy. The already-expensive, nonselective private colleges will drop like flies, as they just won’t have the value proposition to compete in the market.

As financial aid shifts from institutions to students, the colleges will necessarily become more market-driven in their offerings. The balance of curricular power will shift, first slowly and then quickly, from the faculty to the students, whose “votes with their feet” will determine what survives. Tenure will fade away, and unions will have a much harder time. Programs like ESL will suffer disproportionately, since their students tend to be the least lucrative. Non-elite students would either go without college, or would go in even greater numbers to the for-profits, where their loan burdens will be dramatically higher than they are now.

As with the for-profits now, I’d expect to see a much faster pace of change in both curriculum and method of delivery. That’s both good and bad. Any reasonable observer would have to concede that the pace of change in much of traditional academia now is absurdly slow, but based on what I saw at Proprietary U, it’s also possible to go much too fast. Since the hot jobs at any given moment can change quickly, curricula will have to change to keep up. Anything that functions as a speed bump will get steamrolled.

Prices will go up much faster than they do now in absolute terms, since the annual percentages will be from a much higher base. That will remain true unless and until financial aid dries up, at which point the entire model will come crashing down. The students who are the most vulnerable will suffer the most, since “every man for himself” naturally favors the strong over the weak. Over time, colleges will be seen less as philanthropic and more as carnivorous, because they will be.

Over time, I’d expect to see serious issues around accreditation and transfer. Once states lose the leverage to mandate the transferability of credits within state systems, I’d expect to see newly autonomous colleges get much more idiosyncratic in their transfer decisions. Accreditation based on the credit hour will become hard to sustain, since the prominence of online courses will throw “seat time” into question. As colleges become more frankly competitive with each other, I’d expect to see much of the “gentlemen’s agreement” culture that underlies much of the industry, including regional accreditors, to fray badly.

In the short term, I’d expect a dramatic runup in student costs. Over the longer term, as the industry first fragmented and then collapsed, I’d expect to see the “varying prices for the same degree” model collapse, leading to a “varying prices for varying certificates” model. We’d have a Tower of Babel of degrees, at least until a few market-dominating behemoths were able to enforce a new standardization by virtue of size.

Or, and this would be my preferred option, we could try to make the public education model sustainable. What do you think?