Sunday, September 14, 2014

Demography and Destiny

Does an aging population doom institutions that mostly serve the young?

In New England, this is not an entirely theoretical question.  The New England Journal of Higher Education just published a piece by Peter Francese that makes a compelling argument to the effect that K-12 and higher education in New England will be fighting some severe and inexorable demographic trends in the coming years.  Simply put, the proportion of student-aged people will shrink, and the proportion of retirement-aged people will increase.  Absent some unforeseen cataclysm, these trends are pretty much baked into the cake.  Our responses to them are not.

First, the usual caveats.  These trends probably won’t have much effect on the elite private universities that draw students from around the country or the world; I don’t imagine the folks at Harvard or MIT worry much about this, except to the extent that they publish it.  For various historical reasons, New England has an unusually robust set of elite, private colleges and universities that tend to draw most of the journalistic focus.  But the state and community colleges here, as elsewhere, mostly draw on the local population.  

(I should also add that Boston is an outlier in New England.  It’s affluent, young, hip, and growing.  Many of these trends won’t hold there.  But most of the region is not Boston, just as most of the Northeast isn’t Brooklyn.  Someday, I hope, journalists will figure that out.)

In a perfect world, aging demographics would actually help.  Fewer students per taxpayer could mean more support per student.  In the right political climate, that could (and can) happen. But the politics don’t usually work that way.

Francese’s piece makes the point, correctly, that local debates around school budgets often become baldly generational, with outcomes hinging on whether more parents or more seniors turn out to vote.  Although Francese’s analysis is confined to New England, I saw the same dynamic when I lived in New Jersey, which also features an aging population and high property taxes.  Different school districts handled it in different ways.  My favorite was the way that Somerville (NJ) handled it: it had the school elections on the same day as the science fair.  Parents would show up for the science fair, and then vote on the other side of the gym.  Turnout is turnout, after all.

The other piece of the puzzle is commercial development.  Commercial properties pay local taxes that help offset what residents would otherwise pay.  (Part of the reason that Agawam has a relatively low tax rate for the area is that SIx Flags is here.  All those roller coasters require land, on which taxes must be paid.)  To the extent that cities or towns forego future tax revenues in the name of “incentives,” residents pick up the slack. The argument for incentives is that in the long run, they’re worth the short-term cost-shift; whether that’s true or not, the short-term sacrifice of tax revenues is real. That kind of cost-shifting drives up residential taxes faster than it drives up public spending, but most voters don’t make the distinction.  In higher education, we’re well acquainted with cost-shifting from states to students, and the pushback that tuition increases and loan balances engender.  Much the same thing happens with voters who see taxes going up even as services stagnate; the underlying cost-shift is invisible, making room for other, more nefarious explanations.  

And then, of course, there’s race.  Older generations are significantly “whiter” than younger ones.  There’s considerable evidence for the theory that voters are more likely to support services for people they perceive as “like them” than for “others.”  That’s not unique to New England, of course, but it’s very much part of the picture.  And absent countervailing trends to overpower it, it can tip the balance.

Colleges and universities have more options, generally, than K-12.  Most obviously, community and state colleges can -- and do -- appeal to students beyond the traditional age.  That usually means higher, as in working adults and returning veterans, but it can also mean lower, as in dual enrollment and working with homeschoolers.  Expanding constituencies necessarily entails rethinking much of how we operate, whether that means looking at the semester-based calendar, the time-based degree, or the programmatic mix.  That’s hard to do when resources are scarce and tied to “performance” on set metrics.  Most innovations take a while to pay for themselves; without slack in the system, it’s easy to write off innovations as too risky.  

I don’t believe in fatalism, and I don’t think we’re doomed.  But I do think we need to start making changes on a level that we haven’t yet.  Demographics may not dictate an outcome, but they set some pretty unforgiving parameters.  Those of us who care about public higher education need to come to grips with them, and quickly.