• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Local Control, National Economy

Local limits.

January 2, 2018

What’s the proper role for a locally-funded and locally-controlled community college when the better jobs aren’t local?

I still haven’t seen a serious treatment of that question. But I’m starting to see people put together the elements of the question, which is something.  

As these two pieces by Emily Badger and Paul Krugman outline, the spatial distribution of wealth in the United States got increasingly flat until about 1980.  Since then, wealth has gravitated to a few major metros, and away from smaller places inland. (I’m referring here to the lower 48; Hawaii and Alaska are geographically distinct enough to merit their own analyses.) But most community colleges were established before 1980, and their geographic distribution largely reflects the economy of the postwar period.  

If we see community colleges as local branches of a sort of national educational program, the solution is relatively clear: they should prepare some fraction of students to move to the metros, whether in transfer or in jobs.  

But that’s not what they are. Yes, there are federal and state training grants, and yes, the lion’s share of student financial aid is federal. But control -- by which I mean, Boards of Trustees -- is decidedly local. 

In an economy in which opportunity was more evenly distributed geographically, local control made a lot of sense. Most places had significant opportunity most of the time, so there wasn’t a major tension between educating students and meeting local needs. Doing the first meant doing the second.

But that’s becoming much less true.  The Chronicle’s piece this week about Kennett, Missouri makes the point directly: the kids who go to college rarely return. Moving up requires moving out. “Local boy makes good” requires the boy to stop being local.  

Which doesn’t always sit well with local politicians or philanthropists. Politicians represent districts, rather than people -- increasingly true in the age of rampant voter suppression -- and there’s little constituency for sending talented young people away from a district.

(New Jersey stands as an accidental rebuttal to that.  It spends a lot on its K-12 system, with excellent results, but then exports well-prepared students to colleges in other states. Voters know it’s happening, but don’t vote to change it.  But New Jersey is an exception in many ways…)

Our national discourse around community colleges and workforce development is stuck at the “partner with local employers” level. That’s an excellent idea when the numbers work. But it presumes enough high-paying local employers who want to hire at the “middle-skill” level.  In small cities and large towns that have lost major industry over the years, that may not always be true.  When that happens, well, then what?

Moving the scope of control upwards would seem an obvious answer, but local elites -- especially those nervous about their status -- tend not to cede power willingly. If anything, they often dig in. And our national political dynamic is towards greater distrust between blue metros and smaller red cities, which would tend to suggest political devolution.

But in the context of a national, or even global, economy, political devolution amounts to unilateral disarmament. (That may be one of the nerdiest sentences I’ve ever written.) As Boston pulls away economically from, say, Springfield, I don’t imagine the voters of Springfield being terribly happy to cede more power to Boston, even if there’s a rational policy case to make for doing exactly that. Young people growing up in Springfield might be attracted to the opportunities in Boston, but will be hard-pressed to find ways to access them.

I’m a fan of partnering with local employers, but we need to stop pretending that the questions stop there. They don’t. The increasingly urgent question is how to balance a dispersed system founded on local control with an economy that isn’t. That will take more than partnerships.


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