Sunday, July 31, 2016

Cognitive Dissonance

Last week I joined 39 other community college people at an Aspen Institute workshop at Stanford.  I’m still recovering from the cognitive dissonance.

The workshop was terrific -- I’m still chewing on a lot of the material, and some of it will find its way here as I process it -- and it was great to get to know colleagues from across the country who share my sense that it doesn’t have to be this way.  As at many conferences, the offhand comments in between sessions were often the most important ones of the day.  And I learned again that jet lag is real.

That said, it was hard to have serious discussions of equity and achievement gaps on a campus of a university with a twenty-two billion dollar endowment.

If you haven’t heard Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast contrasting Stanford with Rowan University, check it out.  As a community college person in New Jersey, I have mixed feelings about Rowan, but that’s irrelevant here; Gladwell makes the case that the same size donation would make a much larger social difference at a Rowan than at a Stanford.  Having seen both, I have to agree.  Wealthy institutions are not immune to the law of diminishing returns.

At one point, we got a campus tour from an official Stanford tour guide.  The campus was a mostly lovely blend of Spanish and Modern Techie architecture, and the weather was glorious.  We saw some astroturf on campus -- seriously, that’s not a metaphor -- which the tour guide suggested was a way of handling drought.  To our enduring credit, we all managed to keep straight faces as the tour guide bragged about the diversity of the Stanford student body.  

I don’t think he quite understood his audience.

Later in the week, we checked out the “d-school,” which a loquacious professor explained is neither about design, nor a school.  It’s an enormous blend of a makerspace and a romper room.  They use it for “design thinking.”  The walls and ceilings are festooned with polaroids (or quasi-polaroids) of the students who work there, each with a name and a major.  During a long lecture about how they don’t lecture, I started playing a variation on “Where’s Waldo?,” scanning the polaroids for faces of black people.  As we passed one of the many glass-walled workspaces, an intense young woman came out to tell us “we’d prefer if you didn’t come in.”  I thought her comment a bit on-the-nose, but there it was.

For the rest of the week, I kept hearing comments like “can you imagine what we could do with just one percent of that endowment?”  I could, actually.

Borrowing a bit from Gladwell, if we assume a five percent return on a 22 billion dollar endowment, that’s a little over a billion dollars per year.  That’s before adding the first dollar of tuition income, any new research support, or new donations.  (The guide bragged about their generous financial aid, which sounded impressive until I did the math.  Undergrad tuition, fees, room, and board is 68k per year.  He mentioned that the typical aid recipient gets about 30k of “scholarship” from Stanford.  By my math, that means the typical aid recipient is on the hook for another $38,000 per year.  I couldn’t do that, and I don’t know many people who could.  A full-time student at Brookdale would spend about $5,000 per year on tuition and fees, and even at that level, about 40 percent of our students get Pell grants.)  Every tuition dollar is on top of the billion dollars of passive income.

According to the tour guide, Stanford has about 7,000 undergraduates and about 8,000 grad students.  (I didn’t write down the exact number, and he was rounding, but these seem to be in the ballpark.)  Brookdale has about 13,000 students on the credit side.  Stanford gets over a billion dollars a year in baseline income before it counts the first dollar of tuition.  Brookdale has no endowment, and an operating reserve that would show up as rounding error at Stanford.  It charges less than ten percent of what Stanford charges, and has an operating budget -- salaries, utilities, everything -- that comes to less than ten percent of what Stanford “earns” in a year before taking in the first dollar of tuition.

Put differently, we could go to “free community college” for every student at Brookdale for less than a twentieth of Stanford’s annual rentier income.  It would affect roughly the same number of people.  The key difference is that the Brookdale students have fewer other options.  Alternately, its annual rentier income -- remember, this is one university -- would cover free community college for the entire state of New Jersey, with money left over.  We could improve full-time faculty and staff ratios, beef up higher-cost vocational programs, and improve the lives of thousands of students and their families.  

Gladwell’s point is about the “capitalization rate,” or what the rest of us would call a rate of return for society.  A donation to a school that runs lean will make a much larger difference than a donation to a place like Stanford.  

I knew that, but knowing it and seeing it aren’t the same.  Stanford is beautiful, preposterously well-funded, and entirely separate from the realities that the community college people live. To the extent that elite policymakers hail from there and places like it, I can see why they keep getting the basics wrong.  They’re extrapolating from an outlier.  A colleague in the program responded to one speaker by thanking him for the cognitive dissonance.  I’d like to thank Stanford for providing an entire week’s worth.