Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Watching Connecticut

I don’t live in Connecticut, but I have ties to it.  I know people who work at colleges there. I’ve done two NEASC site visits there.  I was even once a finalist for a community college presidency there, back when they still hired presidents.  Hell, my last hometown was on the state line. All of this by way of saying, I’ve been keeping a close eye on it, and it has been getting harder to watch.

Connecticut’s plan to consolidate twelve community colleges into one was rejected by NEASC, but the main architect of the plan, Mark Ojakian, has indicated that he plans to press on anyway.  His plans have occasioned a flurry of no-confidence votes across the system. The governor who appointed him is term-limited out at the end of this year. Yet, to coin a phrase, he persists.

I actually understand the temptation, but would strongly recommend a different approach.

Ojakian’s public concern is reality-based; the community college system has been underfunded for years, and is starting to look financially unsustainable.  His answer, though, is straight from the short-term thinking playbook: when in doubt, cut. Consolidating twelve campus administrations into a single one offers the prospect of savings on salaries.  Yet even assuming everything he asked for came to pass, and the figures he cited as savings turned out to be entirely accurate, the system would be right back on the brink in two years. And by then the low-hanging fruit, if that’s what it is, would have been picked.

The appeal of cuts is that the payoff is sure, and easy to quantify.  The cost of opportunities lost is unsure, hard to quantify, abstract, and gradual.  Cuts can feel like hardheaded realism, as opposed to the fuzzy idealism of those who oppose them.  The salary of the local HR person who got replaced can be specified; the costs of the errors committed by a central statewide office that doesn’t understand local context will become apparent over time.  The salary of a campus president not hired can be specified; the partnerships not made and donors not cultivated are harder to specify, but over time, they add up.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenge Ojakian is facing.  Like several states in this part of the country, including my own, Connecticut pours significant resources into K-12 education, and is among the top five states nationally for K-12 educational outcomes.  Then it cheaps out on public higher education, resulting in a puzzling trend of exporting talented high school students to other states for college. (Massachusetts and New Jersey do the same.) Compare that to, say, North Carolina or Colorado, which import well-prepared talent from higher-taxed jurisdictions.  The reasons come down to a disconnect between home rule for K-12 and state control for higher ed, but the effect is systemic and perverse.

Still, though, upending an entire system for a fix that -- even if it worked as advertised, which is a huge “if” -- would only buy a year or two doesn’t make sense.  By the time the dust settled, it would be time for another, worse, upheaval. The task at hand is a reinvention of the business model.

That’s not a trivial task, but it’s possible.  For example, large-scale dual enrollment programs could help save money for the K-12 system, all the better to fund higher ed.  Value-added taxes on employers who hire college graduates would help colleges recapture a fraction of the value they give away, making them more sustainable.  The Tennessee model of lottery revenues building an endowment can work. (Marion Tech’s model, in Ohio, of the free sophomore year offers a cheaper variation on the theme.)  The state could invest in philanthropic capacity-building, the better to capitalize on Connecticut’s remarkable polarization of wealth. Connecting to UConn could open up opportunities.  On the operational side, they could do something daring to improve retention and therefore enrollment, such as following Odessa College’s example of shorter semesters, or taking the #RealCollege movement seriously and devoting systemic attention to meeting student needs around food, housing, and transportation.  They could harness analytics to improve their advising model. And yes, if push comes to shove, they could close a campus or two, in order to maintain quality at the others. That option always exists.

Some of these solutions may seem theoretical, but that’s okay.  The word “theory” comes from the ancient Greek “theoria,” meaning “vision.”  When the situation is darkest, that’s when you need leaders with good vision.  You need theorists. This situation is far too important to leave to the accountants.  It’s time to ask bigger and more important questions.

Sustained trimming won’t work.  It’s the beginning of a death spiral, and the time spent on it is time that could have been spent getting smart people together to remake the business model.  Doubling down would just waste more precious time, and make the hole bigger.

By necessity, Connecticut has a chance to become a national leader.  It also has a chance to become a national object lesson. As a neighbor with many, many connections to the state, I’m rooting hard for the former.  It’s time to stop cutting blindly. It’s time for leaders who can see more than two years ahead.