Wednesday, January 10, 2018

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

If I had my wish, I wouldn’t let anyone talk about community college policy or spending unless they got this quiz right.  

One of these things is not like the others.  Which one?

  1. Math
  2. Psychology
  3. Nursing
  4. Philosophy

The correct answer, of course, is c.  Math, Psychology, and Philosophy are profit centers.  We take a major economic loss on Nursing.

Let’s try another one.

One of these things is not like the others.  Which one?

  1. Biology
  2. Automotive Tech
  3. Respiratory Therapy
  4. Radiological Technician

The correct answer is a.  Biology is the only profit center in the group. We take losses on the other three.

I bring these up to make a point that’s often missed in discussions of community colleges and workforce development.  Broadly speaking, traditional academic disciplines are profit centers, and vocational programs take economic losses.  

In other words, if you want community colleges to focus less on general education and transfer, and more on vocational fields, you’ll need to pony up a lot more money.

A LOT more.  And not just in the form of one-off grants, either.  Recurring, baseline, operating funding.  

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  A history class -- history is a profit center -- can be taught in a classroom without any specialized equipment.  It can run at 30 students per section.  It doesn’t require clinical placements.  We aren’t competing with private industry for historians.

Nursing, to take an easy case, requires plenty of specialized equipment.  (Brookdale has multiple labs that simulate hospital settings.  It doesn’t have any that, say, recreate Independence Hall, as cool as that would be.) Clinical sections have to be small.  We’re competing with the largest industry in the country for employees.  And as the technology keeps advancing, we have to keep up with it, even though it leads to no “productivity” gains for us.  It’s pure cost.

Much of the political discourse around community colleges juxtaposes “elite ivory tower classes” with “practical job training,” with the none-too-subtle implication that we’d be better off focusing entirely on the latter.  Leaving aside the basic fact that many well-paying jobs require bachelor’s degrees of the sort that transfer-oriented programs feed -- “transfer IS workforce” is my version of Kay McClenney’s “students don’t do optional” -- traditional academic programs are also much cheaper to run.  If we minimize transfer-oriented programs to beef up the vocational ones, we’re going to need dramatic, sustained increases in funding.  

Right now, many colleges handle that through a combination of cross-subsidies and program fees.  That works as long as you have a critical mass of profit centers.  But if you shift too heavily away from them, and don’t have a massive buffer of subsidy to pay for it, you’ll go under.

So, my modest proposal for anyone discussing higher education funding: be honest about it.  If you want community colleges to become more focused on vocational training, are you willing to dedicate the funding to make it happen?  

If not, well, we have some poli sci classes you might want to take first.  They’re profitable.