• 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.


"In Economic Terms…"

When internal and external logics conflict.

May 29, 2020

What happens when internal and external economic logics conflict?

This piece from The Hechinger Report struck a familiar note. Although the headline is about African and African diaspora studies, the article goes on to address such academic standbys as anthropology, English and history. The core of the piece is the pressure that many programs are under to justify their existence in economic terms.

If you read it closely, though, and you have some sense of the economics of higher ed, you’ll notice quickly that the “economic terms” are being used in two different ways. And in many cases, the two ways contradict each other.

The piece starts out by noting the scrutiny to which many low-enrolled programs are subjected. The argument there is that students vote with their feet, and therefore tuition dollars, and a program with only a half dozen students in it can’t justify full-time faculty positions. The economic rationality invoked there is the internal budget of the college. As far as the college’s balance sheet goes, a program or department that loses a lot of money creates a shortfall that has to be made up elsewhere; when external funding drops, that’s harder to do.

But the piece goes on to note the open antipathy that many politicians, more of one party than the other, tend to heap upon majors like anthropology, English and history. They see those programs as fluff, on the theory that they don’t lead to jobs. Cut those programs, argue folks like Scott Walker, and steer the proles instead into something useful! Heed the external marketplace, or pay the price.

But those “fluffy” programs are profit centers. More traditionally “vocational” programs lose money. So which is it?

I’ve looked at the numbers. On my own campus, for instance, anthropology and history are profit centers. English breaks even. We lose huge amounts on automotive and nursing. And that’s only counting areas with full-time faculty dedicated to them. Gender studies, for instance, doesn’t have any full-time lines devoted to it; it’s taught by faculty from other departments. The courses run at a decent size and pay for themselves. Meanwhile, a more vocational program like rad tech loses money.

So which economic logic are we supposed to use? The internal one, by which the profits from history help offset the losses from nursing, or the external one, by which nursing grads get higher starting salaries than history grads? (Admittedly, that’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, since the history major is really built for transfer, but the idea still stands.) If it’s the former, then we should drop the vocational programs for being too expensive. If it’s the latter, then we will need a lot more public money. Losing the cross-subsidies from history and anthropology would make the vocational programs unsustainable. Yet the political figures who champion more “practical” programs have been conspicuously unwilling to acknowledge that, let alone to put their money where their mouths are.

Come to think of it, community colleges are the sector of higher education with the most vocational programs, and yet, their sector receives the lowest per-student funding by a wide margin. If the Scott Walkers of the world actually meant what they said, we should be the best funded. It’s almost as if …

As a wise man once said, follow the money.

If you want public colleges to be self-supporting, stop expecting them to run vocational programs. Let them focus on the academic core, where economies of scale are easier. If you want them to focus on workforce preparation programs, be prepared to pony up far more money than we do now. With the pandemic consuming any slack left in the system, you can’t have it both ways anymore. At least, not without a huge, sustained infusion of operating funding.


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