Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Other Side of Free Tuition

As longtime readers know, I’m a fan of the idea of community colleges being tuition-free.  It strikes me as the best hope we have of bringing excluded people into the advanced economy, of building an informed citizenry, and of generating the kind of workforce that can sustain long-term prosperity.  Opening up higher education to anybody who wants to try it is exactly the sort of thing that a prosperous society that believes in the dignity of everybody should do.

From where I sit, though, there’s a minor issue that people keep forgetting.

If a state wants truly free community colleges, there’s a key step it has to take.  It has to support significantly increased _operating aid__ to those colleges year in and year out.  

Notice I didn’t say “scholarships,” or “performance-based incentives,” or “capital grants,” or “seed money,” or any of the other indirect or restricted sources of money.  The key is _operating aid_.

Operating budgets, as distinct from capital budgets, cover labor costs, utilities, and short-term expenses.  In other words, they pay for people. They are what pay for faculty, registrars, financial aid staff, advisors, librarians, and electric bills.  When operating budgets fall short, we see the kinds of austerity that folks in higher ed know all too well -- replacing full-time faculty with adjuncts, replacing full-time staff with hourlies, having two people do the work of three.  Over time, each new cut becomes the baseline for the next one; political leaders wedded ideologically to the idea that all public spending is bad keep forgetting every cut before the next one. With each round, students pay (often through borrowing) more for less.  Then we wonder why young people are turning to the political left with a vigor unseen since before the Cold War.

Holding operating aid flat, or cutting it, while promoting “free community college” is austerity on steroids.  It makes the fundamental mathematical mistake of conflating price (of consumption) with cost (of production). At a really basic level, it kneecaps colleges’ ability to make payroll.

I wouldn’t be quite so strident on the point if the people who refuse to increase operating aid didn’t also condemn colleges for raising tuition.  But they do. When asked just exactly how we’re supposed to pay the bills, they tend to dismiss the question breezily, usually with some passing mention of “new revenue streams.”  I’m a big fan of new revenue streams when people can actually identify what they are. But when used as a smoke bomb to escape a hard question, not so much.

Sometimes they refer instead to a “new business model,” with emphasis on the word “business.”  The implication is that adopting the attitudes and practices of private industry would make everything okay.  But that’s not our mission. For-profit companies aren’t about universal service or universal access. They serve the people it’s profitable to serve.  If a given area isn’t profitable, it’s cut off. Just ask the folks in Lordstown, Ohio, where the GM plant just closed. Despite a president who claimed such things would stop, they didn’t; the business case to close it was too compelling.  Business shed unprofitable product lines and employees as a matter of course. That’s not the point of a community college. Its job is to serve everybody, including those whom a business-minded manager might calculate are more expensive than they’re worth.  Given our mission, that’s a feature, not a bug.

Frustratingly, the current wave of austerity is entirely voluntary.  The economy is strong right now, we keep hearing; that’s part of why our enrollments are down.  If the economy is strong, what’s with all the cuts? If the economy is awash in jobs and money and we’re still taking cuts, what happens when the next recession hits?

Enough.  Our employees insist on being paid not in conditional money, or hypothetical money, or the vague promise of future money.  They want actual dollars in the bank. We can only do that if we have actual dollars in the bank. If we’d rather source those dollars from the revenues drawn from progressive taxation, instead of tuition, I’m fully on board.  But to pretend that we can just cut and cut and cut without ever doing damage isn’t a political position; it’s a delusion. We can eliminate price, but we can’t eliminate cost. Austerity is expensive, whether we acknowledge it or not.