Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Perfectly Good Failure

It isn’t often that I get news over the phone that surprises me so much that I blurt out “wow!” so loudly that the rest of the office wants to know what happened.

NEASC shot down Connecticut’s proposal to collapse twelve community colleges into one.

In my neck of the woods, that’s earthquake-level news.  

NEASC is the regional accreditor for the New England states.  In my time at Holyoke, I was in their territory; I even did a couple of site visits for them in Connecticut.  

Connecticut’s plan, called Students First, was a system-level reorg with the overall purpose of saving money.  That’s important because Connecticut as a state is caught in a fiscal squeeze, and demographics aren’t going to save it.  

My understanding of it is that Connecticut built its political economy largely on the proceeds from high-wage NYC workers who wanted to live in suburbs.  With millennials favoring NYC much more, and with corporate headquarters no longer favoring Connecticut, the fiscal commitments it made in better times are becoming hard to sustain.  Tax increases are a tough sell, so spending cuts became the way of things by default.

The consolidation plan never made sense to me; colleges are complicated creatures, and you can’t run one off the side of someone’s desk.  Local fundraising would be likely to take a severe hit. And I’ve never seen a college cut its way to greatness.

Apparently, NEASC saw the proposed consolidation as the establishment of a new college.  That requires a different sort of application that’s likely to take several years. The current Governor’s term ends this year, and he isn’t running for reelection, so even if they submitted a revised proposal tomorrow, there’s no guarantee that the next governor will support it.

All of which raises questions of what happens next.

I’d love to see the state take the opportunity to move in an entirely different direction.

Small Northeastern states will never be able to compete on the basis of low taxes, light traffic, or sunny and warm climates.  Population density (and the jet stream) make those impossible. But they can compete on having well-educated workforces. New England historically has relied on private nonprofit colleges and universities for that, often weirdly neglecting its state systems.  

This may be a chance to stop, rethink, and change course.  Public higher education isn’t just another burden for taxpayers to bear; it’s the one thing giving Connecticut a shot at a prosperous future.  Economically speaking, it’s seed corn. Eat that, and bad things happen.

The state has responded by saying that it may have to close some campuses instead.  That may wind up happening. Philosophically, I’d rather see, say, ten excellent colleges than twelve mediocre ones.  Ten excellent colleges will result in thousands of well-educated students; twelve mediocre ones won’t. That’s small consolation to displaced employees, of course, but so is being laid off from a place that just limps along.

The nightmare scenario for me is that they try to do to NEASC what the City College of San Francisco did to its accreditor.  A drawn-out legal and political battle, at great cost, would only siphon resources away from students. It would also call the integrity of accreditation into question at a time when the Feds are being much more lax about regulating for-profit colleges.  This is not the time to melt the guardrails for scrap metal. This is the time to rethink the entire approach, and to look for long-term sustainability.

There’s no shortage of models out there.  Nearby Rhode Island has had remarkable success with free community college, and Rhode Island is poorer, on average, than Connecticut.  Tennessee’s model is the gold standard, but there’s no reason Tennessee has to have a monopoly on it. Cutting is not the only way out.

NEASC may well have saved Connecticut from itself.  I hope Connecticut doesn’t let a perfectly good failure go to waste.