Sunday, April 28, 2019


The return flight was delayed, so I haven’t yet had a chance to review the new Century Foundation report on community college funding in any depth.  But the quick gloss I was able to muster suggests that at a really basic level, we need to think through what we’re counting.

The headline about the study refers to differential funding per FTE across sectors.  Predictably, it’s pretty glaring: community colleges get less funding than other sectors by several multiples.  That’s an issue in itself, and I’m fully on board with those who argue that more funding is a baseline need for sustainable improvement.  The reasons are familiar to longtime readers. But I was struck by the “per FTE” measure. I know they needed a common denominator, but “per FTE” takes a bad situation and compounds it.  

At the Swarthmores of the world, “FTE” and “total enrollment” are probably pretty close.  You could switch the latter for the former and it wouldn’t change the result much. But at most community colleges, “FTE” and “total enrollment” are far apart.  That’s because a majority of community college students are “part-time,” even using the 12-credit threshold that falls short of the official FTE measure of 15.* A college with an FTE of 4,000 might have a student headcount of 10,000.  In that context, choosing between “per FTE” and “per student” makes an enormous difference.

The argument for going “per student” is that there’s no reason to believe that part-time students use only the proportion of student services and campus resources that aligns with their proportion of 15 credits.  Many use far more. In fact, the students who are able to take 15 credits per semester are often the ones with relatively solid family financial support and somewhat fewer demands on their time than others. If we provide only enough advisors for the number of FTE students we have, we won’t reach most of our students.  It takes just as long to advise a part-time student as a full-time one. It takes just as long to prepare a financial aid package for a part-time student as for a full-time one. A part-time student with psychological issues won’t scale those issues back to part-time. Many of our most vulnerable student populations -- the ones that require the most wraparound support -- attend part-time because it’s all they can manage.  But they use support far beyond that.

That’s not a criticism of the students.  I want students to access the support they need.  It’s a criticism of a simplistic measure. FTE is a plausible measure of students in classroom seats, but it’s pretty far from a measure of the services and staffing required.  Raw headcount may be too much, but FTE is far too little.

Similarly, the report calls for some of the proposed increased funding to go to increasing the percentage of full-time faculty.  I’m fully on board with that, too, for a whole host of reasons. But the report refers to a raw headcount of adjunct faculty as against full-timers, which can be misleading.

I’ll illustrate with a hypothetical department.  The Quantum Basketweaving department (motto: “where did the stitch go?”) has four full-timers and six adjuncts, for a headcount ratio of 2:3.  One full-timer is the chair, who gets a course release and teaches four courses in load. The others teach five courses each in load. The adjuncts average two courses each.  That gives the department 19 courses taught by full-timers and 12 by adjuncts. The ratio basically flipped based on whether you counted classes or people. From a student perspective, the odds of getting a full-timer teaching a given section are 19:12, not 2:3.  

As with FTE, the difference between the measures -- sections or people -- matters more at community colleges.  That’s because full-timers here teach more sections in load than full-timers in other places. At places where a full-timer teaches two or three sections instead of five, and course releases are more common, headcount might give a fairly accurate picture of classes.  Here, it simply doesn’t. At my own college, adjuncts far outnumber full-timers, but sections taught by full-timers outnumber sections taught by adjuncts. Definitions matter.

If we want to argue for parity across sectors, we shouldn’t default to measures that inadvertently rely on distortions that work to the disadvantage of community colleges.  The fact that industry “default” settings work against us is, itself, part of the problem.

The most interesting prospect of the report -- which I need to set aside time to pore over -- is the idea of a baseline number for how much money community colleges need to do their job well.  Off the top of my head, that involves judgments about what “the job” is, how good is good enough and how we know, and some regional multipliers to reflect differences in cost of living. A number that might work in South Carolina, where we passed billboards advertising new construction houses “starting in the $200’s,” wouldn’t work here.  

If we count the wrong things, we’ll wind up endorsing unfunded mandates without even knowing why, and then blaming colleges for struggling under their weight.  Here’s hoping this study is more thoughtful than most...

* 15 credits = 60 credits/4 semesters.  12 credits= the federal definition of full-time.  The difference leads to no end of confusion for students.  Every spring brings some angry calls: “But I’ve been full-time for two years!  It’s a two-year school! I passed everything! What do you mean I’m not graduating?”  The answer “well, yeah, you were full-time, but you weren’t full-time full-time” isn’t very satisfying.