• 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.


Friday Fragments

Arizona and its community colleges; sound and light.

March 12, 2015

Arizona’s move to eliminate all operating funding support for community colleges was both shocking and not. It’s the logical conclusion of a longstanding trend, surprising mostly in its speed and clarity. And it even makes a kind of cynical sense.

My understanding of Arizona’s system -- admittedly, from an outside perspective -- is that it includes some local funding, so the colleges haven’t been entirely privatized. But that’s obviously the direction they’re moving.  To the extent that they go from subsidized to self-supporting, they come to resemble private colleges, or even for-profits.

For-profits have a large presence in Arizona, including the headquarters (and football stadium) of the University of Phoenix. Such outsize for-profit presence may signal to legislators that public higher education is relatively expendable, since they already have people for that sort of thing. Yes, for-profits are far more expensive for students than community colleges, but from a legislative perspective, there’s a key difference. Community college funding comes from local and/or state taxes. Title IV federal aid plays an important, but supporting, role.  By contrast, for-profit funding comes almost entirely (just under 90 percent) from federal aid. In other words, while for-profits are more expensive, those higher costs are paid for by other people. Yes, residents of Arizona pay federal taxes, but there’s no direct connection between how much federal tax they pay and how much Title IV money for-profits there can receive. If the choice is between paying a small bill yourself and having someone else pick up a large one, I can see the appeal of the latter.

Of course, nearly every state could make a similar calculation if it wanted to.  To some degree, they already do; flagship state universities taking more out-of-state students for the sake of their higher tuition is a variation on the same logic.

The perverse upside of Arizona’s decision -- maybe this is just how my mind works -- is that it liberates the community colleges from wondering any more what the state will do. A major variable has been eliminated from the equation. Over time, that could lead to greater predictability. After the bleeding stops, they’ll have more room to tinker with their own business models, without having to worry about the next round of legislative cuts.  

Forcing community colleges to become more like private colleges undermines community colleges’ reason to exist. I suspect that for some legislators, that’s exactly the point.  Arizona has also effectively exempted itself from any future maintenance-of-effort requirements from the feds. Maintain zero effort? Sure...

From a longer-term, big-picture perspective, Arizona is eating its seed corn.  But as with eating seed corn, there’s a discernible short-term logic to it.    


The Boy: What’s sound?

Me: It’s a wave.

TB: So if time stopped, there wouldn’t be any sound, right?

Me: Probably not, since it couldn’t move.  

TB: But there could still be light, because that’s a particle!

Me: It’s a particle and a wave.

TB: It’s both?

Me: Yup.

TB: So if time stopped, it would just be ... dimmer? Because the wave couldn’t move, but the particle would still be there?

I didn’t have an answer for that.


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