Thursday, September 29, 2011

Green Follows White?

Could community colleges attract more funding by attracting more white kids?

This column suggests that they could. It’s hardly news that “race,” class, and politics intersect in complicated and sometimes unseemly ways in the U.S. Citing the experience of various public K-12 districts, the column argues that “green follows white,” so cc’s that want increased funding would be well-advised to take deliberate measures to attract more sons and daughters of the middle class and higher. Parents care more about their own kids’ schools than about other schools, so if we can enlist politically and economically influential parents, we can get some of that sweet, sweet funding.


I’ll start by both recognizing and condemning the fact that income is racially skewed in the U.S., and that people are more supportive of institutions that seem relevant to them then they are of institutions they assume are for other people. (For example, I care more about the quality of my own kids’ schools than I do about other schools. That’s what parents do.) And yes, there’s an ample history of programs or institutions that get identified with “the poor” getting starved out, while programs identified with the middle class and higher do quite well. The comparative fates of public housing and the mortgage interest tax deduction offer an instructive example. And certainly the history of white flight and the subsequent fates of many urban public school districts is hard not to notice.

That said, though, the idea of shutting out the most vulnerable from one of the few options available to them is morally objectionable. And at least in the short term, money and facilities would lead to some crowding out. If we pay for a beefed-up Honors program by halving our sections of ESL, I could predict the demographic outcome with confidence. (Dispiritingly, I can also predict the effects on our graduation rate. The folks who fixate on graduation rates need to keep this in mind.)

I’d go at it differently. Yes, community colleges need the economic and political support of the middle and upper classes. But they also need to stay true to their reason to exist. Given relatively little slack, is there a way to do both?

One college at which I used to work applied the theory that green follows silver. Attract senior citizens to the college with special programming relevant to them, and assiduously cultivate those relationships over time. Seniors vote at much higher rates than younger people -- especially low-income younger people -- and many of them like to make a mark in the world. To the extent that you can use “senior day” or similar events to cultivate both political support and donations for scholarships, you can do some real good.

I’ll say, too, that I’m a fan of Honors courses and curricula at community colleges. That’s not a universally popular sentiment. But I like them because they acknowledge that the higher-achieving, more ambitious students are also part of the community, and because they acknowledge that income is not a perfect indicator of academic ability or drive. The intelligent, driven student from a single-parent family deserves the same shot as everybody else.

The connection between political support and operating funding strikes me as more complex than just “let’s round up some white kids.” We’ll probably have a natural experiment testing this hypothesis over the next few years anyway, as more kids who might have gone straight to four-year schools in the past find themselves priced out by the recession. If that happens to lead to a broader base of political support and therefore a stronger budget, great, but I haven’t seen that yet. Color me skeptical.

The tragedy of higher ed funding is that historically, green has followed green. The Harvards of the world raise far more than, say, the Bunker Hill Community Colleges of the world, even though there’s an intelligent argument to be made that BHCC would get more use from the money. Yes, some donors are responsive to need, and thank heaven for that, but many more respond to success than to need. If someone out there knows how to break the cycle, I’d love to hear it.

In the meantime, if we can get some green to go with our white, brown, black, and everything else, that would be lovely...