• 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: State Policy Edition

A good idea, a bad idea and a category confusion.

May 22, 2020
 
 

Kudos to the state of New Jersey for agreeing to hold students harmless, in terms of state-level financial aid, if they failed or withdrew from classes in the spring 2020 term.

Many financial aid programs include requirements of "satisfactory academic progress," or sometimes of a particular GPA, to keep the aid. The idea is to help students progress without subsidizing slacking. (What appears as slacking, from the outside, is frequently more like "struggling with multiple external issues," but that’s another post.) But this semester, many students had issues stemming from the pandemic that nobody could reasonably have expected anyone simply to shrug off. Giving a sort of hall pass for the semester is the right thing to do.

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I’m glad, too, to hear that another bill introduced in the Legislature appears to be DOA. That bill would have compelled public colleges in the state to give prorated tuition refunds to students for the second half of the spring term, as a sort of penance.

Penance for what, exactly, isn’t clear. The governor ordered the colleges to close. Ordering colleges to close, and then punishing them for obeying the governor’s order, is absurd. I’m proud of the way the faculty and staff stepped up to help students get through the semester; the course drop rate for the period from the start of the quarantine through the end of April was actually 40 percent lower than the same period last year. That doesn’t look like failure to me. That shouldn’t be punished.

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A couple of days ago, I objected here to using metaphors of war to understand a pandemic. Today I’ll object to using metaphors of business to describe college budgets.

We’ve taken a significant hit to our budget from the state already, and enrollment for the fall is a question mark. Accordingly, we’re looking at possible cuts.

But the rules under which we have to operate are based on an entirely different logic.

By state administrative code 9A, if we need to downsize the Hypothetical Studies Department, we have to first get rid of all of the adjuncts. They’re the lowest-paid faculty, but they have to go first. Assuming we meet that criterion, then we start with the most junior full-time faculty and work our way up. We are explicitly barred from considering performance. And when we get to the ranks of the tenured, anyone laid off from Hypothetical Studies has to be moved to any other department for which they’re qualified, even if it means laying off other people there.

Adjunct classes cost less than they take in; in business terms, they’re profit centers. The highest-paid faculty cost more than they generate; in business terms, they’re loss centers. By state administrative code, we have to eliminate the profit centers to protect the loss centers. In business terms, that’s backward. But those are the rules.

We’re not even allowed to offer retirement incentives. The state doesn’t want the pension costs.

If you understand that colleges aren’t supposed to be profit-generating, the rules make some sense. But then, you have to be willing and able to pay the costs of compliance with them. Right now we’re looking at massive losses to the ability to pay, while still being required to adhere to rules written when resources were much more plentiful. The math doesn’t work.

So, my request of the state: pick one. If you want to hold a group immune to the economy, you need to pay for it. If you’re not going to pay for it, and you want colleges to act like businesses, then you need to let colleges act like businesses. You can’t have it both ways. Pick one.

Having worked in both for-profit and public higher ed, I can tell you that the public option is well worth the cost. Some level of insulation from the marketplace is essential to maintaining academic standards; the customer may always be right, but the student isn’t. As California showed us in the last recession, a desiccated public sector opens up room for much more expensive private providers to swoop in and extract public money. It’s far cheaper up front to provide a good public option.

You just have to understand that it may have a budget, but it’s not a business. It’s a service, like police and fire protection. Get the metaphor right, and the rest will follow.

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