Sunday, March 24, 2019

Thoughts on Alder College

Admittedly, I’m late to this one, but I just saw this story about the folks in Oregon trying to create a new non-profit two-year college they call Alder College.  The idea is that it will replace the “checklist” model of general education with a tightly cohorted two-year interdisciplinary program culminating in an AA degree.  Students will have to be full-time, and will take themed clusters of courses in short blocs. It’s going to be aimed particularly at low-income students and students of color.  

I like the spirit behind it.  Very few nonprofit colleges are springing up these days, especially if you don’t count former nonprofits trying to stave off the inevitable.  The focus on liberal arts is doubly rare. It seems to have a clear educational vision, to its credit. The founder interviewed in the piece, Jennifer Schubert, doesn’t show any signs of wanting to disrupt the entire industry or go global; it looks like she just wants to create a good little college that will offer learning communities to students who have been underserved.  Nothing wrong with that.

That said, I’m not surprised that it’s having trouble getting off the ground.  

As a nonprofit without an endowment -- Schubert mentions in the piece that they haven’t any major donors step up -- it would necessarily be tuition-driven.  That’s nearly impossible in the early stages, since you have to hire people before you can start cashing checks. Let’s say they somehow get past that; if the last year or so has taught us anything, it’s that small liberal arts colleges with tuition-driven budgets are swimming against the tide.  Just ask the folks at Dowling, Wheelock, Newbury, Green Mountain, the College of St. Joseph...

That’s particularly true if you’re targeting low-income students, as Schubert suggests.  By definition, these are students who can’t pay full freight. They are also, often, students who can’t attend full-time.  They need to work, both to support themselves and often to support their families. Requiring them to be full-time students will vastly shrink the pool of students who could even consider it.

Guttman College, in New York City, has been able to do a version of this.  But that’s because it skims the relatively few students able to do it from the population of New York City.  It’s an impressive model, but it can only survive in a very specific setting. And it has public funding.

The number of private, non-profit, two-year liberal arts colleges in America is vanishingly small.  They have to compete with community colleges, which have the (declining, but still real) advantage of public funding.  That means they don’t have to charge the full cost of production. The private ones do. And although Schubert trots out the usual suspects of “bureaucracy” and “hierarchy,” Alder wouldn’t be immune to most of the cost drivers that everyone else faces.  It would need tutoring, and IT, and financial aid staff. It would need an EEO officer, and disability services, and marketing. None of those directly generates revenue, but you can’t skip any of them. And because they’re targeting Portland, Oregon, I assume rent won’t be cheap.

Honestly, what Schubert is talking about here sounds more like a really good Honors program at a community college.  There’s no shame in that. Alternately, it could morph into a network of dual enrollment programs, essentially piggybacking on high schools for the institutional support.  Or she could change the target market altogether and try to make it into something like a Chautauqua of the West Coast. But trying to revivify a dying business model for a transfer-focused degree at twice (or more) of the cost of local community colleges?  As much as I like to root for anyone trying to start something positive, I really don’t see it. The students she would want would be unlikely to be able to attend full-time at full price in sufficient numbers to keep it afloat. The local community college would undercut her on price.  

I wouldn’t mind being wrong on this.  Wise and worldly readers, is there a way to build a non-profit, tuition-driven, liberal-arts focused two year college these days?