• 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.

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Friday Fragments

Defining cost, the Statue of Liberty, budget cuts and a retirement.

June 23, 2016
 

The New York Times ran an uncharacteristically good piece this week on steps that various community colleges are taking to improve student success rates. Its coverage of community colleges, to the extent that it exists, tends to be embarrassingly classist, so the fact that it published something substantially accurate is heartening.

Still, it missed the boat on a key point.

It refers to lowering “cost,” but doesn’t define cost. That may sound pedantic, but it matters.

If “cost” here means “price,” then the easiest way to lower prices is to increase operating aid to community colleges. The piece is silent on that point, despite well-documented declines in operating aid over the last decade.  

If “cost” means “cost of provision per student,” then the piece needs to address the true drivers of cost. For example, when we shift from traditionally academic offerings to more vocational offerings, the cost of provision jumps exponentially. (That’s due mostly to smaller class sizes, though in hot fields, instructor salaries are often higher, too.)  

If “cost” means “cost per graduate produced,” then it needs to recognize -- as the CCRC’s book did -- that most of the reforms they champion may reduce cost per graduate, but would increase overall spending. The article mentions that briefly and in passing, but doesn’t connect the dots.  

The article cites Tennessee’s experiment, which I’ll confess to envying. Tennessee has made it much easier for new or very recent high school grads to attend community college.  As a result, more are, and they aren’t working so many hours for pay that they can’t study.  It’s a terrific model, and it satisfies the first definition of lower cost.  But it does so by relying on an additional external revenue stream.  That’s the kind of detail that needs to get reported.

Still, the piece reflects actual effort. Keep it up, Times!

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The Girl: “Has anyone thought of soaking the Statue of Liberty in a huge vat of lemon juice, so it wouldn’t be green anymore?”

I’m guessing the answer is “no,” but I didn’t have the heart…

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The Times piece on ways that public universities are handling funding cuts isn’t terribly good, but it’s a gesture towards a body of scholarship that I’d love to see some Ed.D. students tackle. Hint, hint.

Even after all these years, the literature on the best ways to handle budget cuts is thin and disappointing, to the extent that it exists at all.  Every so often you’ll see something about “shared services,” “purchasing consortia,” or -- in a different direction altogether -- union-busting.  But you almost never see good empirical pieces that would offer guidance for the best way to, say, reduce a budget by five percent without harming students.

Enterprising scholars of higher education, you have an open field. And if you do it well, I can guarantee you that your stuff will get read.  

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My Mom has formally turned in her retirement letter; the actual retirement will be in early August.

She’s going out on top; for the last few years, the Financial Times has rated the Career Services office for MBA students at Drexel either number one or number two in the world. That didn’t happen until she ran it. She knows her stuff.

 

Well done, Mom.  I learned from the best.

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