Monday, April 16, 2012

Four-Year Degrees, Two-Year Schools

The news from Michigan that Northwestern Michigan College, a two-year school, has applied for permission to offer four-year degrees got me thinking about the entire concept.

(I’m not focusing in particular on Northwestern Michigan College, since it’s armed at a level that my college simply is not.  They have a 224 foot submarine.  I’m not gonna mess with that.)

Should community colleges offer bachelor’s degrees?

My strong inclination is “no,” though I’m more than happy to support cooperative bachelor’s degree completion programs, aggressive articulation agreements, and even statewide transfer blocs.  Community colleges as the first two years of a four year degree strike me as a very reasonable solution for many people.  Community colleges as four year schools, not so much.

I understand the impulse.  Four year colleges get much more respect, and can charge correspondingly higher tuition.  The faculty would generally support the idea, as long as it came with the lower teaching loads characteristic of four-year schools.  Students routinely ask when we’ll start offering four-year degrees, since they like it here and don’t want to go elsewhere.  I get that.

But mission creep is poisonous, especially when money is tight.

If we suddenly had to cover twice as many sections with the same faculty, we’d have to either increase our adjunct ratio even more, or stuff the class sections fuller.  That’s how a lot of the four-year schools do it.  When I t.a.’ed for the 101 class in my discipline at Flagship State, the main lecture was taught in an auditorium for 300 students.  “Recitation” sections had about 25 students, but the t.a.’s were typically grad students in their mid-twenties with minimal preparation.  We learned on the job, if at all.  By contrast, the 101 classes at my cc are taught by real faculty in sections of 32 or less.  The students can actually ask questions.  

The political issues might even swamp the staffing ones.  Right now we have excellent relationships with most of the local four-year colleges, since they see us -- correctly -- as a feeder.  We transfer the higher achievers directly into their lower-enrolled upper-level sections.  The four-year schools can fill their upper-level classes even after freshman attrition; we can give students real and valid goals to shoot for; the students can get four-year degrees at a deep discount.  Wins all around.

But recast us from “feeder” to “competitor,” and suddenly things get ugly.  We have to raise prices substantially to compensate for the extra staffing, extra sections, extra facilities, and extra marketing.  The four-year colleges move from “accepting transfers” to “poaching,” with all of the ethical dilemmas that implies.  We have to reduce our freshman admissions in order to make room for the upper-level students, with directly regressive economic fallout.  

More broadly, mission creep is one of the underappreciated cost drivers in American higher education.  Second-tier schools want to be first-tier, and they know that it costs money to do that.  Colleges want to be universities, and the slightly selective want to be more selective.  Right now, community colleges offer the benefit of relative specialization, and of a clear identity.  They specialize in the first two years, and leave the rest to others.  Suddenly moving from “effective provider of the basics” to “mediocre four-year wannabe” strikes me as wrongheaded.  If anything, the right move for community colleges is towards greater specialization, not less.  

The universe of higher education has become more diverse, even as the various colleges and universities try to imitate each other.  (For-profits account for the difference.)  My free advice for community colleges is to embrace specificity.  Do those first two years better than just about anybody else.  Let the for-profits pick up the most expensive vocational programs.  Focus intensely on the liberal arts core, with a few vocational programs of obvious relevance.  (In my neck of the woods, that would include allied health and criminal justice.  In Northwest Michigan, it may include working 224 foot submarines.  Gotta protect us from rogue Canadians.)  Let the other folks carry the costs of HVAC technician training or upper-level seminars.  

Community colleges have the raw material to be the breakthrough sites for innovations in teaching writing, speaking, and math to first-year college students.  That’s a worthy and difficult mission, hard to do well but valuable when done right.  Let’s do that.  I’m content to leave the upper-level stuff to the colleges that specialize in it.  Better to do what we do, well.