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Most of the time, I try to strike a relatively measured and thoughtful tone here.  The report “Redeeming America’s Promise” merits an exception. 

Just before the Great Recession, my state -- along with many others -- made a de facto policy decision to shift the lion’s share of the cost for public higher education from the state to the students.  Now that enrollments are in retreat, we’re in serious austerity mode, even as we’re increasingly subjected to “performance” funding on what state funding we do get. 

In that climate, the “Redeeming America’s Promise” proposal is a slap in the face.  I can’t decide if it’s toxic or just obtuse.  Maybe both. 

RAP is an ambiguously funded nonprofit pushing a Big Idea.  In this case, the Big Idea is discriminatory austerity.  Thanks, but no thanks.

In the name of equity and fairness (!), RAP suggests restricting community colleges to charging $2,500 per student, per year, with no option for the college to increase that, despite the needs on the ground.  The mechanism is a little indirect -- a scholarship at a set figure that colleges couldn’t go above -- but it’s ultimately a price control.

Meanwhile, it proposes $8,500 per student per year for four-year colleges.  In both cases, any future increases would be pegged to the CPI.

For those keeping score at home, that would mean that colleges with more high-income and academically prepared students would get over three and a half times the per-student funding that would go to the colleges that serve more low-income and academically underprepared students.  This, in the name of fairness.

One could conceivably make an argument for price controls if they came with serious new operating subsidies to make up the lost income.  But they don’t.  The closest the report comes is a statement that “[s]tates should also use rising revenue from a growing economy to pay for any additional costs.”  Yes, they should.  They should do that now.  But they don’t.  And in the absence of compulsion, it would be absurd to expect that they suddenly will. 

The price controls would hit hard.  On my own campus, we’d be looking at about a forty percent reduction just to start, and mine is the second least-expensive college in the state.  That’s on top of the years of austerity we’ve already endured, the positions we’ve already lost, and the mandates that just keep coming.

You think community colleges are adjunct-heavy now?  Drop a forty percent funding cut on them and see what happens.  At that point, anything that distracts from the assembly line -- tenure, unions, shared governance, innovation, technology, professional development, student activities, name it -- would have to go.  We’d all have to move to the Rio Salado staffing model  (22 full-time faculty and 1500 adjuncts for 60,000 students).  Innovation and professional development would be reserved for the faculty who teach the scions of the upper classes.  The assembly line is good enough for the proles. If that’s what you want, say so, and we can have those debates honestly.  If you’re unwilling to say it upfront, well, why?

The arrogance of the proposal is just astonishing.  It suggests “fiscal discipline” for a sector that’s already majority-adjunct, and that hasn’t increased its per-student spending in over a decade.  It suggests writing discriminatory austerity into law, ensuring that the colleges that serve more low-income and underrepresented populations get several times less money per student.  It does absolutely nothing to address external cost drivers, let alone internal ones.  It completely whiffs on the economics of the service sector.  (The CPI understates increases in the cost of production in the service sector.  I would expect a policy think tank to know that.)  AT one point, it even refers to basing funding on what services “should” cost, rather than on what they “do” cost.  I literally cannot imagine actually running an organization that way.  And RAP does it all with the characteristic breeziness of people who don’t actually have to implement it.

No.  This is not reform.  This is magical thinking expressed in bullet points, with a side dish of racism.  This is a travesty.  Shame on its authors, and shame on its sponsors.  They shouldn’t be looking for redemption.  They should be looking for forgiveness.  In the meantime, those of us who implement on the ground have actual work to do.

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