Sunday, March 23, 2014

When Secession Moves North

When I think of secession movements in America, I usually think of the South.  But the idea is moving North, and not without reason.

Several state university campuses in Pennsylvania are trying to secede from the state system, in order to avoid exactly the kind of bill currently being considered in New Jersey for its public colleges.

The Northeast is having a rough go of it this year, and not only because of The Winter That Wouldn’t Die.

West Chester, Shippensburg, and Millersville universities are petitioning for a change in status.  They want to exist PASSHE, the Pennsylvania state public system, and instead become “state-related,” like Temple.  The idea is to give up a rapidly-shrinking subsidy in exchange for greater control over their own decisions, whether about salaries, tuition, or programming.  Presumably, they would be free to negotiate their own union contracts, as well as to set whatever policies they see fit.  The rest of the system is nervous, because losing its financially healthiest members doesn’t bode well for the rest.  The unions are nervous too, because going from one contract to several reduces leverage at any given location, and they might lose whatever gains they’ve accrued over the years in the new contracts.

From the outside, it’s easy to condemn West Chester and the others for abandoning ship.  But as someone who actually works on a public campus, I understand the impulse.  

States have become much less reliable, and yet much more controlling, partners than they used to be.  The inexorable pressure of increased costs for Medicaid, Medicare, corrections, and K-12 combine with a strong anti-tax electorate, strict rules about balancing budgets, and an unpredictable political climate to create a higher education climate of seemingly perpetual austerity.  After hearing the umpteenth variation on “tighten your belts,” I can understand the appeal of telling the state what it can do with its belt.  One could easily blame the secessionists for mixed motives, and I assume that nobody is entirely pure.  But when the state persistently fails to uphold its end of the bargain, year after year, and the direction is downward and accelerating, well, what would you do?  One could argue that trustees who fail to support a drastic change are falling short in their fiduciary responsibility to the institution.

New Jersey’s latest idea exemplifies the kinds of kneecappings that public higher ed has been taking for a while. New Jersey is considering legislation for force colleges to freeze tuition for any given student for nine semesters upon initial enrollment.  When the state enacts its latest round of cuts, colleges will be entirely helpless to offset the losses elsewhere.  The bill is written to apply even to private colleges.  I have a hard time imagining that holding up in court, but there it is.  

For the community colleges, there may be some solace in county-based funding.  For the state colleges, that source doesn’t exist, so the suffocation should be complete.  The language behind the proposal is unintentionally revealing.  Rep. Celeste Riley, D-Salem, refers to it approvingly as a “great, simple concept.”  Great, no.  Simple, yes.  And that’s really the heart of the issue.

A “freeze” has a superficial simplicity to it.  It suggests discipline, and offers an easy conceptual hook.  It feels like decisive action.  But detached from operations, it’s delusional.  

At the simplest possible level: controlling prices without controlling or offsetting costs is madness.  It’s like assuming that if you get rid of health insurance, people will just stop getting sick.

Colleges don’t raise tuition for fun.  (If I had a nickel for every time I hear a pundit refer to colleges charging “what they want,” I’d be a wealthy man.)  They do it to address costs.  When underlying costs go up -- whether labor, utilities, health insurance, technology, financial aid, unfunded state or federal mandates, or whatever else -- colleges have to find that money somewhere.  Ideally, public colleges would get most or all of that from the state (and/or county).  When colleges absorb years upon years of cuts, though, they have to make up the difference somewhere.  In my experience, they split the difference between spending cuts -- adjuncting-out faculty positions, cutting administration and staff, freezing pay, automating whatever possible -- and price increases.   Students rightly balk at paying more for less, but that policy decision has been made at a much higher political level than local administration.

To make matters worse, “freezes” reward past aggression and punish past frugality.  A campus that had the foresight to hike tuition when the getting was good will permanently be better off than one that held the line.  Existing inequities will be baked into the system permanently.  Why that’s a good idea is beyond me.

The New Jersey proposal addresses the price increase part, but does nothing to address the underlying costs that the price increases are supposed to cover, or to provide alternative support.   It just ratchets up the climate of austerity and tells the campuses to deal with it.  It’s the kind of no-win situation that encourages secession.  

I’m not in Pennsylvania, and I’m not privy to enough facts on the ground to say whether I would support the secessionist movement.  But I understand the impulse.  If Pennsylvania wants to retain a state system that means something, it needs to do a drastic re-envisioning of what that means.  And if New Jersey doesn’t want to follow Pennsylvania, it needs to start by recognizing the difference between cost and price.  In the case of public higher education, secession amounts to privatization, with all of the costs that entails.  Better to create the conditions that make it possible to avoid it.