Monday, January 09, 2012

Rationing and Rationality

Apparently, a few California community colleges have taken to rationing seats.   Since their funding is entirely disconnected from their enrollments – astonishing, but true – the only way the colleges can make do on shrinking state allocations is to turn people away.  While most campuses have resorted  to the easy and time honored  “first come, first served” method of allocating seats, a couple campuses have started consciously rationing seats, giving priority to entering students and/or students identified as likeliest to graduate.

At the same time, IHE reports that at the meeting of the Council of Independent Colleges, a gathering of private nonprofit colleges across the country, the discussion centered around programmatic rationing on campus.  (I couldn’t help but notice that the story didn’t draw a single comment.)  One President mentioned telling her Board of Trustees that this is exactly the kind of exercise that garners votes of no confidence in presidents, as faculty circle the wagons to protect their (and their friends’) curricular turf.

I’ll register a mixed reaction to these stories, which strike me as basically the same story.  They’re both attempts to bring conscious thought to prioritizing the allocation of scarce resources.  In the former case, the scarce resources are seats for students in classes; in the latter, funding for faculty positions.  But at the end of the day, they’re really both about scarcity.

Off the top of my head, I can come up with several different ways to allocate scarce resources.  And let me be clear that I’m not celebrating the fact of scarcity, especially in the case of California.  I’m just assuming that scarcity will be a recurring condition, and it would make sense for colleges to decide consciously how they want to handle it.  Obviously, windfalls of resources that make difficult choices moot are always welcome and preferable, but sometimes they just aren’t in the offing.

One method is inertia.  Use “first come, first served” for student seats, attrition for programmatic cuts, and hope for the best.  This is the default method, and it’s by far the most common throughout higher ed.  The advantage of this method is that it’s politically easy, and it works well when the scarcity is mild and passing.

Another is pricing.  This is how economists usually recommend dealing with scarcity.  In the context of student seats, this would involve raising tuition and fee charges until demand falls naturally to the desired level.  From an institutional perspective, this has the added benefit of raising considerable revenue.

Pricing doesn’t work as well for allocating internal resources, though.  A close variation would look at the profit and loss generated by each program, and treat losses as costs.  Pick the programs that cost the institution the most – that is, the ones that lose the most money – and eliminate those.  The advantages of this method are that it offers the most bang for the buck, by definition, and it shifts the discussion from unanswerable questions (“which is more important, sociology or history?”) to easily answered ones.  The obvious disadvantages are twofold.   First, it tends to favor the students who have the most to spend.   Culturally, we’ve decided that that’s okay for private goods, like ipads or jet skis, but it’s not ideal for public goods.  Since higher ed partakes of both, it seems extreme to base the entire decision on one set of rules.  The other disadvantage is that it can easily lead to programmatic incoherence, faddism, and a loss of mission.  If we assume that students don’t always know what’s best for them – anathema to free market absolutists, but common sense to educators – then we have to assume that defaulting to the way students vote with their dollars is an abdication of professional responsibility.

Alternately, a college could make explicit, conscious decisions based on publicly announced criteria.  This could be done autocratically, through administrative dictat, or inclusively, through open discussion and debate.  (Obviously, I favor the latter, though I know that isn’t always easy.)  Either way, the college would have to decide – explicitly – what it considers most important (and by implication, what it considers less important).  It would have to spell out its rationale, and justify its rationality.

The downside of the explicit approach is that it tends to generate wildly disproportionate outrage.  (Witness the excoriation SUNY Albany endured when it proposed eliminating a few departments last year.)  Cuts by attrition feel neutral, which can be politically useful; cuts by deliberate design, whether autocratic or democratic, necessarily involve targeting.  It’s unsurprising that the targeted take offense.

As much as I hate the idea of community colleges turning capable students away, I have to welcome the clarity that results from forcing a serious discussion about priorities.  If we can’t do everything -- the old “comprehensive” model -- then what should we do?  The answer will probably, and properly, vary from one setting to the next, but it strikes me as the right question.  And I’d rather answer it honestly -- even to the point of having to name who loses -- than keep defaulting to institutional inertia.  Democracy isn’t always pretty, but I’ll take it over denial.