Wednesday, June 06, 2012


In response to yesterday’s post about what college should cost, several people answered by saying something like “just add up what you need to provide a good education and divide by the number of students.”  

Which sounds reasonable enough, until you reflect on the word “need.”

Like freedom, need is a large word.  It isn’t simple at all.

In the very short term, it’s fairly straightforward.  We need to cover our “fixed” costs, and the varying-but-necessary costs like utilities and snow removal.  (This winter we got a break on those, which was great, but which we can’t count on in any given year.)  But over the long term, most of those could be changed.  If we narrowed our curricular offerings, for example, many of the added costs of specialized facilities would fade away.  Alternately, when we add new programs in high-cost areas, the bar moves up.

“Need” gets even fuzzier when you get away from direct instruction.  Do we “need” a campus radio station?  Men’s and women’s basketball teams?  Do we “need” to pay adjuncts as much as full-timers on a pro-rated basis?  Do we “need” to offer more financial aid?  Do we “need” to grow our online offerings?

Different colleges answer those questions in different ways.  In my experience -- and this varies somewhat by region -- community colleges tend to say ‘yes’ to basketball and ‘no’ to football.  Flagship universities tend to say yes to both.  Residential colleges “need” high-quality dorms and robust student life programs; community colleges generally don’t.  Programmatic offerings vary by both the genre of the institution and local needs, so a program that’s a practical necessity in one part of a state might be puzzlingly irrelevant in another.  

I’d argue that in general -- with exceptions, of course -- community colleges have erred on the side of parsimony.  But I have an obvious bias there.

Of course, “need” can refer to students, too.  This piece from the New York Times shows some pretty scary numbers about the economic prospects of today’s high school grads who don’t go to college.  With the midcentury unionized factory jobs mostly gone -- whether to other countries or to technology -- or paying far less than they used to, and with no shortage of college grads for the “good” jobs that do exist, folks with only high school diplomas face some pretty bleak options.  According to the article, among Americans who graduated high school between 2009 and 2011 and didn’t go to college, only 16 percent are employed full-time, and only another 22 percent are employed part-time.  That’s absolutely staggering.

Seen in that light, what a college “needs” could be measured by how well it improves the life prospects of its students.  If we use that measure -- still imperfect, but a good bit better than many other options -- then the argument for dramatic increases in subsidies (to keep tuition, and therefore student loans burdens, minimal) becomes much harder to refute.  Graduating into a tough job market is bad enough; graduating into a tough job market with a heavy student loan burden is that much worse.  (Of course, the worst scenario is dropping out with a heavy loan burden.)  Keeping tuition down -- and doing what needs to be done to help students be more successful -- suddenly starts to look like a need.  And you don’t get something for nothing.

And that’s before dealing with broader social “need.”  Higher education levels correlate to lower divorce rates, lower rates of crime and violence, later childbearing, and all manner of broadly desirable outcomes for society as a whole.  (One of the great ironies of American life is that the most politically conservative states have the highest divorce rates.  Massachusetts, which legalized gay marriage under governor Romney, has the lowest.  Education is the key underlying variable.)  To the extent that improving the life circumstances of American children is a need, making college (or even post-secondary certificate training) more accessible is a need.

So no, it isn’t as simple as just adding up expenses and dividing by students.  The first need is to understand what we mean by need.