Monday, October 27, 2014

Call Waiting

I was happy to see yesterday’s report on the latest from the Center for American Progress, calling for a new round of public investment in higher education.  I was particularly taken with the idea of focusing the largest increases on community colleges, which have absorbed the largest proportional cuts over the last decade and a half.  The report suggests using progressive taxation to fund a drive by the Feds to get the states to reinvest in public higher education.  But the report skips a crucial step.

There’s certainly no shortage of damning data.  Although the trend of state disinvestment in public higher education goes back decades, it accelerated radically with the Great Recession.  As a result, colleges increased tuition and fees at exactly the moment that students could least afford to pay them.  The impact was most dramatic at community colleges, which serve the most economically vulnerable students.

For the record, the idea of a return to meaningfully progressive taxation, with the proceeds being used to help public institutions adapt to changing needs, strikes me as excellent and well worth trying.  It’s also pretty unlikely for the foreseeable future, outside of a few pockets.

Which is why I was so disappointed at the conclusion of the report.  It concludes with a call to action.

Well, yes.  But if that were going to work, it would have worked by now.  The issue is not a lack of awareness that funds have been cut -- those of us on campuses are pretty well-versed in that -- or a lack of awareness that a well-educated public is a good thing.  The issue is the lack of a strong political constituency behind it.

As a political theorist, by training, I’m well-acquainted with the temptation to finish with a call to something.  I’m probably guilty of it myself from time to time.  It offers an easy answer to “so what?,” and it feels like doing something.  

But it skips a step.  Who should do something, and how does it serve their self-interest to do it?

The most successful programs tend to serve multiple needs for multiple constituencies.  Good program architecture requires, among other things, careful thought to political coalition building.  

An easy example would be workforce training programs for companies or industries that are struggling to hire.  The company wants employees.  Local political leaders want a thriving economy.  Residents want jobs.  Colleges want students.  When the program matches the need, everybody wins.  And they win not just in an “enlightened self-interest” sense twenty years out, but right now, and in concrete ways. It’s sustainable because it doesn’t require special farsightedness or self-sacrifice on anybody’s part; it simply requires everyone to do what they want to do anyway.

Of course, “wants” aren’t always transparent.  I mentioned yesterday that employers’ needs are actually much more nuanced than they’re typically assumed to be in our political discourse.  The skills often derided as “soft” are crucial to success in most workplaces. (Along similar lines, Jeff Selingo noted correctly that the preferences of senior managers often don’t align with the practices of HR departments or hiring managers.)  Speaking of “employers” as monolithic will obscure those issues; successful coalition building will require awareness of those fissures, and a willingness to engage with the possibilities they offer.

The comments to the IHE story were illustrative.  Some of them simply assumed that colleges are hotbeds of critical theory and cultural subversion, and suggested that if they weren’t entirely consumed by women’s studies and suchlike, they’d be fine.  Others suggested that education is an individual good, rather than a social good, so shifting costs to students was reasonable.

The first answer fails to explain why community colleges would take the most severe hits.  Do you know how many women’s studies majors we had in 2008?  Zero.  Not a single one.  Did that protect us?  Nope.  If women’s studies had anything to do with it, we would not have been cut.  In fact, women’s studies had nothing to do with it one way or the other.

The second strikes me as mistaken, but more understandable.  It’s basically asking for a reason to care.  Although some of us might wish that the question would answer itself, a basic respect for democracy suggests that it’s fair to be asked to justify a position to the public.  That’s a winnable argument, if we bother to show up.  We need to show up with more than just data.  We need to offer reasons for people outside the industry to care, and offer plans that recognize those reasons.  Without that, we can keep calling to action, but nobody new will answer the call.