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Three Dollar People
May 24, 2013 - 3:57am

The New York Times reports that instructional spending at research universities has risen much more quickly over the last decade than at community colleges.  

In 2009, community colleges spent $9,300 per student on educational resources, virtually unchanged from 1999 once inflation was taken into account. Public research universities spent $16,700, up 11 percent from 1999, and private research universities spent $41,000, an increase of 31 percent.

Community colleges often receive substantially less money per student than elementary or high schools, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin professor who served on the 22-member committee that wrote the report.


By an absolutely astonishing coincidence, the more expensive settings are just about as white as they ever were, and more affluent than they’ve been.  Meanwhile, community colleges are far more diverse, and their students more economically downscale, than ever.  

Between 1994 and 2006, the white share of the community college population plummeted from 73 percent to 58 percent, while black and Hispanic representation grew from 21 percent to 33 percent, in part reflecting growing diversity in the population as a whole. By contrast, the change was much less dramatic at the most selective four-year colleges during this time period, when the white share dipped just three percentage points (from 78 percent to 75 percent) and the black and Hispanic shares barely moved (from 11 percent to 12 percent).

Funny how that happens.


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A few months ago, Tressie McMillan Cottom did a post about the sorting function of different tiers of American higher education, in which she quoted some students at a fairly elite place saying that for-profits were “not for people like them.”  (I did a response piece here.)  

It reminded me of a piece I read in the late, lamented Ann Arbor News in the summer of 1990.  The Detroit Pistons were in their glory at that point, but tickets to games were expensive and hard to come by.  So the Pistons broadcast their away games to their home arena and sold tickets to those, well, screenings, for three bucks.  The idea was to give fans from Detroit (as opposed to its suburbs) a chance to have the experience of rooting for the team in a crowd.

The article quoted a vendor at the arena who wasn’t happy about the broadcast attracting the wrong element.  The line has stayed with me since then.  “When you sell three dollar tickets,” he sniffed, “you get three dollar people.”

And the three dollar people could see their team, but only when the team wasn’t there.

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Technology has changed since 1990, with paradoxical effects on cost.  Now the very wealthiest institutions are tripping over each other to give away their teaching for free.  As with the 1990 Pistons, the great unwashed finally get to see the stars, except that the stars aren’t actually there.  If you want presence, you go to your local community college.

America has a long history of valuing institutions or programs based on the people they serve.  That’s how we could “end welfare as we knew it” in 1996, and yet have transfer payments occupy an ever-larger share of the federal budget; in the American mind, transfers to “deserving” people don’t count as welfare.  Section 8 rent subsidies are politically suspect, but the mortgage interest tax deduction is sacred.  Food stamps are questionable, but farm subsidies are beyond dispute.  Flagship research universities -- and their football teams and alumni associations -- get respect in its most concrete form.  Community colleges are told to keep doing ever more with ever less.

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This isn’t a new story, of course.  But it isn’t inevitable, either.  We’ve had periods in American history in which the economic classes got closer.  At its best, America has taken positive steps to expand the ranks of the “deserving.”  It still does in certain ways; I’ve seen major progress in my adult lifetime in the ways that it’s acceptable to treat gays and lesbians, for example.  But we restrict equality, increasingly, to non-economic areas.  Be as equal as you want, as long as it doesn’t cost anything.

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Community colleges, at their audacious best, are institutional realizations of the egalitarian side of America.  Their recent fate has tracked the fate of that egalitarian side. 

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On a moral level, of course, that’s awful.  But it’s not just about morality.  People who have something to lose act differently than people who don’t.  That’s true even when the “something” is as abstract as a chance. 

Last night I was privileged to attend the annual scholarship award ceremony at HCC.  Donors who had funded various scholarships attended and saw the students they had funded.  We all got to hear the success stories of the students -- some single Moms, some recent immigrants, some people in suits and some in painter’s pants and sad-looking sneakers.  Many of the students had already made plans to transfer to some pretty impressive four-year schools, and they were grateful for the chance.

It’s a gratifying event, and I was happy to be there. But at some level, no matter how generous the donors, it was only possible because of the strength of the underlying institution. Hollow out the community college, and the transfer route will close. Take away enough operating funding, and all the scholarships in the world won’t matter.

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Some of the three dollar people will surprise you.  I never get tired of the success stories.  They’re tributes to hard work, of course, and to the sacrifices of families, friends, and children. But they’re also affirmations, however unintentional, of the nobler, more inclusive side of American culture.  A side that remembers that you can’t always tell who has the next great idea just by looking. 

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I’ve got nothing against research universities; I got my doctorate at one. But it would be nice if we could shift the public discussion a bit from the “climbing walls” and luxury dorms of residential universities.  More American undergrads attend community colleges than research universities.  The funding issues here aren’t about out-of-control costs.  At some level, it’s hard not to think they’re about writing off the three dollar people. 

 

 

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