Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Praise of Niches

This blog doesn’t address car repair, the Twilight series, Hungarian food, or speculation about the next Secretary of State.  Its set of topics is relatively defined, as regular readers know.

That’s not because I adjudge those other topics unworthy or uninteresting; if any of them strike your fancy, there’s no shortage of other places to read about them.  It’s just that there’s a limit to the number of things I can address thoughtfully, and I don’t see much point in covering topics just to cover them.  I’ve found a niche, and that’s where I work.  People who are interested in this niche sometimes find their way here; people who aren’t, don’t.

I thought about that in reading about the University of Phoenix’s  (Phoenix’?) lobbying to prevent community colleges in Arizona from expanding to offer four-year degrees.  The angle the article took was that it was exposing a “plot to corner the cheap education market.”  The U of Phoenix was cast as the evil, money-grubbing mastermind behind a lobbying campaign to prevent the heroic and virtuous community colleges from doing more to serve their students.

Well, maybe.  The motive is certainly there, as are the means and the opportunity.  I doubt that Arizona’s legislators needed to be pushed to champion the private sector -- they seem pretty far right on their own -- but that’s a matter of judgment.  

My issue with the article isn’t so much the idea that the University of Phoenix hired lobbyists to pursue its self-interest in the legislature.  I assume that’s true, and find it unremarkable.  It’s with the idea that community colleges offering four-year degrees is an unalloyed good.  That’s not obvious to me at all.

Admittedly, my view may be influenced by my location.  Western Massachusetts has no shortage of four-year colleges and universities, both public and private.  From the main HCC campus, it’s a half-hour drive or less to UMass-Amherst, Amherst College, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, Elms College, Springfield College, Western New England University, American International College, and Westfield State University.  (On the two-year level, you also reach Springfield Technical Community College.) Go a little farther East and you hit Worcester and Boston, both of which have a few colleges of their own.  From here, the idea that the first order of business should be to offer bachelor’s degrees just doesn’t make sense.  If anything, from here the first order of business should be -- and is -- transfer.

But my misgivings go beyond a particularly fertile location.  They’re rooted in the idea of a niche.

Community colleges already have broad missions.  They provide non-credit courses in workforce development, personal enrichment, and adult basic education.  They provide developmental courses for people who want college degrees but whose academic preparation has gaps.  They provide terminal degrees in workplace-ready fields, and they provide associate’s degrees that are built for transfer.  

That’s a pretty big niche now.  It’s why over forty percent of the undergraduates in America are at community colleges.  By any reasonable measure, it’s a full plate.  With increased public pressure to improve graduation rates -- and shoestring budgets with which to do it -- improving the quality of delivery across such a wide range, with open admissions, will require sustained focus.  It will require the willingness and ability to reap the fruits of what specialization we still have.

Adding bachelor’s degrees to the portfolio, particularly in the absence of bachelor’s tuition and funding levels, would make improvement that much harder.  Suddenly the faculty would have to pick up the entire 300- and 400- level curriculum, on top of the heavy pre- and intro- level teaching they already do.  We’d suddenly have to scale up facilities for upper-level science courses, which don’t come cheap.  We’d have to increase tuition dramatically, with predictable political consequences.  And our entire marketing and public profile would have to change.  Instead of being a feeder for so many four-year colleges, all of a sudden we’d be a direct competitor.  Resources currently directed to such useful but unsexy purposes as tutoring would have to be redirected to sales.  

A college that has to be everything to everyone seems unlikely to do it all well, just as a blog that tries to address every topic under the sun seems destined to get much of it wrong.  I’d rather do a two-year mission well than multiple missions badly.  Let the four-year colleges handle the upper division; they do it well, and our students thrive when they get there.  Our successes aren’t because of magic or money or superior ability; they’re due to focus.  Take that away, and we’d be lost.  

The University of Phoenix probably wasn’t thinking this way when it worked to stop community colleges from offering bachelor’s degrees.  Its motives were probably a good bit more self-interested.  But it may have been right, even if for the wrong reasons.  Let the four-year colleges do what they do well; community colleges already have a niche, and an important one.