Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Postcards from the Provinces

This is a sensitive subject for me, because I grew up in a region that most of the country has no idea even exists.  It’s called “Western New York,” and it is not New York City.  It’s closer to Michigan than to Manhattan, both physically and culturally.  But in the rest of the country, “New York” refers only to the city.  The western part of the state makes news only when a blizzard strikes, or the Bills make it to the Super Bowl.  The region has its charms, but in an era of “spiky” distributions of wealth and the growth of the top ten major metros, it struggles for recognition and resources.  If you aren’t from there, you may never give it a moment’s thought.  In policy discussions, it almost doesn’t exist.

A new study shows -- brace yourself -- that people who grow up in out-of-the-way places often stay there.  When they go to college, they tend to stay close to home.  Not all, but most.  

That matters on a number of levels.  

For one, as the IHE article suggests, it means that the “undermatching” thesis is even less useful and valid than it seems.  Partisans of the “undermatching” thesis believe that talented but isolated or low-income students from the provinces would flock to selective, elite universities in Boston or New York, if only they weren’t so darned ignorant.  Put a scorecard online, and just watch the brain drain from the provinces to the cities.  What happens to the provinces, well, that’s their problem.

But that’s not how it works.  Talented students often stay close to home, and restrict their college choices to places nearby.  And that’s not because they don’t know any better.  It’s because they want to.  Believe it or not, people consider factors beyond what shows up in scorecards.  Family obligations, regional tastes, and a sense of being at home matter.  

Performance funding schemes that operate at a statewide level are remarkably poor fits in regions like that.  Tell someone in Lockport that, say, Guttman Community College has a higher graduation rate than Genesee Community College.  What, exactly, do you expect her to do with that information?  Putting Batavia and Manhattan on the same grid, as if they were essentially interchangeable, gets both places wrong.  Guttman and Genesee don’t compete with each other for students.  But in a performance funding system, they would compete with each other for resources.

(In my previous job, I saw the same thing in reverse.  Holyoke had a much higher graduation rate than Bunker Hill, in Boston.  They competed with each other for state funding, though I never met a single student who chose one over the other.  They’re 90 miles and a world apart.)  

The intuitive appeal of the “undermatching” thesis to many policy types is that it accepts hierarchy and polarization as inevitable.  Its logic leads to inevitable death spirals for the weaker locations, which would lead to even greater inequality of opportunity by region.  If you’re of a Darwinist bent and living in an elite metro, that may sound perfectly fine to you.  But if you live in one of the forgotten parts of the country, the callousness and elitism are hard to miss.

If we assume that the point of higher education is to pluck out the few worthies from the great mass and to siphon them to the few places that matter, then the undermatching thesis is the way to go.  But if we assume that people who choose the Batavias of the world -- for reasons of their own -- also matter, then we need to reject it out of hand.

Community colleges are increasingly countercultural in a geographic sense.  As Richard Florida likes to point out, the geographic distribution of wealth and opportunity is becoming increasingly spiky.  But community colleges’ distribution is flat.  They’re built on the assumption that the Batavias of the world matter.  

They do.  Students know that; they’re telling us with their feet.  I hope policymakers figure that out before they do even more damage.