Wednesday, May 18, 2016

With Friends Like These…

North Carolina is considering a bill to require five public universities there, four of which are HBCU’s, to reduce in-state tuition to $500 per semester.  The reason offered is to make education more affordable for low-income students, though the bill does not provide any increases in state aid to offset the substantial loss of tuition revenue.

I won’t pretend to understand the racial politics of North Carolina in any sort of nuanced way.  HBCU’s face issues that are unique to them, and I’m not an expert on those.  I’ve never worked at one.  

But I’ve worked in public higher education administration for the last thirteen years, and I know a frontal assault when I see one.  This is a frontal assault.  

It’s all the more frustrating for its disingenuousness.  If you’re serious about improving access for low-income students, you have several options.  You could invest in scholarships.  You could increase operating aid to the colleges the students favor.  (The key word there is “operating,” which is the most valuable, and hardest, kind of money to replace.)  You could streamline and smooth the transfer process from community colleges.  You could invest in student support programs, whether targeted or broad-based.  If you’re farsighted and ambitious -- hint, hint -- you could support experiments in different structures and business models.  That could involve anything from competency-based programs to expanded Prior Learning Assessment to stackable credentials to heaven knows what.  

And none of those strategies are mutually exclusive.  You could combine, say, increased operating aid with support for targeted interventions and programmatic innovation.  That way, you could address both the urgent need of the present -- students who can’t wait five or ten years for your innovations to bear fruit, if they do -- and the need for a sustainable long-term model.  Take a page from the SNHU playbook and run multiple business models simultaneously, in parallel.  

What you don’t do is send universities into accelerated death spirals.

Regional publics (including HBCUs) tend to be run pretty frugally on a good day.  Taking a third or more out of the operating budget in a single shot is an extinction-level event.   

Just thinking about the steps involved gives me a headache.  You’d have to declare financial exigency and develop a (fast) layoff plan that would both save enough to keep you afloat and still keep enough to provide some semblance of a program.  You’d have to raid reserves or endowments, if any, to pay severances.  You’d also have to shore up your legal defenses, because lawyers would start circling.  The AAUP would almost certainly censure you, ironically enough, for doing what had to be done to keep the place open.  Student protests could get ugly.  I’d expect community protests, too, and some heated discussions with donors.  I don’t know if the faculty there are unionized, but if they are, expect plenty of issues on that front, too.


Then I’d expect to see some sort of badly inadequate attempt at restoration, in which you’d get back far less than you lost, and you’d be “held accountable” for trying to get back to the -- let’s not forget -- relatively frugal status quo ante.  Meanwhile, the underlying tensions of the original business model remain unaddressed, and the physical plant gets neglected.

Or, some of them would just close.

I don’t disagree that the public higher education business model needs serious rethinking.  But where I differ from the scorched-earth crowd is in what mathematicians call “order of operations.”  You don’t burn the old model down until you have a new one ready to take over.  You don’t replace a flawed-but-necessary something with nothing.  First you develop the replacement and make it good enough to draw interest away; then you let the old model go.  Skipping a step, which is what North Carolina is proposing to do, amounts to abandoning people in terrific need.  I assume the sponsors of the bill are smart enough to know that, and are choosing to do so deliberately.  I’ll let the sociologists figure out the extent to which the attack is rooted in racism, libertarianism, classism, and/or whatever else, but it’s clearly an attack, and it would likely be fatal to the universities involved.

No, thanks.  I’ll go with the Southern New Hampshire strategy over the North Carolina strategy, given the choice.  The students are too important not to.