Thursday, July 21, 2011


Sometimes I feel bad for Illinois. It has had some issues with its state government -- cough -- that have prevented it from coming to grips with, say, a catastrophically underfunded public employee pension system, or with the reality of biweekly paychecks.

That said, its recent proposal to use student aid as an incentive for transfer students to start in community colleges is intriguing.

The idea seems to be that tuition at community colleges is much lower than at four-year colleges, so students who enroll first at cc’s leave financial aid money on the table. The state is considering sending some of that money to students as a reward for saving the state money. In essence, it will let students apply the excess to the third and fourth years of college, thereby reducing their eventual loan burdens.

I’ll give the idea two cheers.

The first cheer, obviously, is because students who are in tough financial shape will get some money to help them along. And the second is for belated and welcome recognition that community college’s aren’t just in the business of workforce training or remediation. To the extent that the state knits the various elements of higher education into a coherent system, complete with well-specified paths for successful transfer, I see a real (and affordable) gain for the state.

But I’m concerned that directing ever-more enrollment to the community colleges, while directing money to students instead of institutions, will squeeze quality even more. That’s because community colleges charge students far less than what it costs to educate them. Add more students without adding more state aid -- in fact, I could see this program actually adding to the pressure to keep tuition down, making the squeeze even worse -- and the shortfall will come out of service delivery.

IHE recently had a wonderful article detailing the efforts to which colleges are struggling just to keep up with the ever-increasing and ever-changing financial aid compliance rules. Every time the feds change the rules, local resources get diverted from quality improvement to keeping the feds happy. (We recently added staff to the Institutional Research office, hoping to finally get ahead of compliance-driven reporting and actually move to evidence-based decisionmaking. Then the feds changed rules again and hoovered up the new person’s time. Thanks, guys.)

I could see the Illinois program doing something similar to the community colleges. In the absence of a serious and sustained increase to operating funding, new programs like these divert resources from already-existing programs.

I”d like to be wrong on this one. I’d like to hear that this new policy is just a small part of larger policy of appreciating community colleges as the linchpins of public higher education that they actually are. I’d like to hear that we’ll move to per-student funding parity with the four-years, sustainable and predictable budgets, and a new sense that people with money and choices would choose community colleges deliberately.

But I”m not holding my breath on that. So two cheers for Illinois. To use language they’ll recognize, the jury is still out on the third.