Sunday, April 03, 2016

A Real Choice

If you haven’t seen Tim Burke’s latest, check it out.

Budgets look different at the Swarthmores of the world than at most community colleges.  That said, his recent piece on budgets holds true for both.  It’s about the use of strategic ignorance around budgeting to avoid confronting unpleasant realities.  

It got me thinking about some of the choices that tight budgets force.  Honest discussions of those choices would cut across the usual battle lines, which may be part of the reason that honest discussions are so rare.

To take an obvious case, and one that Burke alludes to: we know that smaller class sizes are generally better for students, as long as you have critical mass.  (A public speaking class with one student isn’t ideal.)  And we know that in the aggregate, students who have more full-time professors are likelier to complete than students who have large numbers of adjunct professors.

But I’ve never seen a serious attempt to weigh one against the other.  In other words, assuming that you could afford one but not both, which is better?  Is it better to have more and smaller sections, at the cost of more adjuncts, or is it better to keep the full-time percentage high, even at the cost of larger classes?

I could imagine either being true, but the key word there is “imagine.”  The ideas aren’t usually presented against each other in public discussion, but they’re directly opposed when developing budgets.  Given limited money, on which is it better to spend?  Dodging the question means leaving it to others to decide.  

I’ve seen people do somersaults to avoid answering questions like those.  “Cut administration instead” sounds good until you look at the actual savings -- nowhere close to what’s needed -- and the work that doesn’t go away when the people do.  It also assumes a level of bloat or growth that simply doesn’t exist in this sector.  It’s an evasion rather than an answer.

We could jack up tuition, but that comes with costs, too.  At a really basic level, tuition increases put more of a burden on students, many of whom are already struggling.  They also tend to annoy the elected officials at the county and state levels who decide on our operating support; jack up tuition too much, and they’re likely to respond with offsetting decreases.  High tuition flies in the face of the mission of a community college; Swarthmore is immune to that, but we’re not.  And at some point, elasticity of demand is likely to set in -- raise tuition too much, and you stop raising revenue, either because you’re giving more back in financial aid or you’re getting fewer students.  Plenty of private colleges have maxed out on tuition as a revenue source, judging by their discount rates.

And that’s before even mentioning the rate of increase of health insurance costs, which have the same effect on the budget that termites have on a house.  Any serious proposal for more full-time employees -- faculty, staff, or admin -- needs to account for that.

Culturally, there’s a tendency in higher ed to deny the concept of opportunity cost.  Instead, it’s easier to behave as if budgetary constraints are either imaginary or a symptom of not trying hard enough.  But they’re real, even in states that aren’t quite as far gone as, say, Illinois.  We’ve coped through a combination of wishful thinking, denial, buying time, and infighting.  I’d rather try a strategy of coming to grips with reality, even if that sometimes means having some awkward conversations.

So, I’ll start.  Has anyone seen actual data contrasting the “smaller sections with more adjuncts” strategy to the “larger sections with more full-timers?”  If so, how did it turn out?  And if not, are there any enterprising higher ed doctoral students out there looking for a topic?