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Every conference should kick off the morning session with Freeman Hrabowski, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. I’ve seen him speak several times now, and I marvel at his evident joy. This man knows how to own a stage.

Carol Tecla Christ, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, followed less successfully. She raised an eyebrow when she claimed, verbatim, that “free college is a dangerous and deceptive slogan, because someone always pays.” The same argument could be made against K-12, public libraries and fire departments, of course. Supporters of free community college, of which I am one, are fully aware that money has to come from somewhere. The question is where.

Had she argued instead that she didn’t trust the Legislature not to cut subsidies over time, that would have been a defensible, even plausible, position. But acting as if supporters are unaware that employees have to be paid is just silly. Honestly, I expected more from a university head.

Turning to her own university, she outlined six major new revenue streams that the university is pursuing, including monetization of land, monetization of intellectual property, self-supporting master’s programs and philanthropy. I was struck that all of her solutions to budget issues were on the revenue side, rather than the cost side; at no point did she suggest that the university needs to do anything different on the spending side. From the presentation, my impression was that she treated spending as a (growing) “given,” and tasked herself merely with finding ever more money. Again, for a university leader, that struck me as a weirdly shallow analysis.

In a hallway conversation, someone whose identity I will protect mentioned that she thought that many of the issues public higher ed is facing now are “undertheorized,” which struck me as exactly right. There’s still an assumption among many presidents, faculty and analysts that the last 40 years or so were some sort of aberration, or that the only challenge we have is in not trying hard enough. That’s not it. Effort is great, but we need to think through the issues we’re actually up against.

Undertheorizing surfaced in a different form at a panel on online education. The panelists represented the University of Massachusetts, George Mason University, the University of Maryland University College and StraighterLine. They discussed the role of online program managers, the for-profit companies that help universities scale up their online offerings quickly. Burck Smith, from StraighterLine, suggested that the fact that colleges haven’t passed along the savings from online teaching to students has created a market opening for alternative providers, such as his, and that we should expect more of them to emerge if we don’t address price. It’s an intriguing idea, though it assumes that cross-subsidies don’t serve a function. They do.

During Q&A, I noted that nobody up there was from a community college, and I asked about the impact of online teaching on achievement gaps. I expressed a concern that if low-cost alternate online providers cherry-pick the students who are the easiest to teach, it will create an “adverse selection” problem for community colleges, in which we would be left with the students who are hardest -- and the most expensive -- to reach.

More basically, to the extent that we shift teaching to online modalities, achievement gaps by race tend to expand, which is counter to community colleges’ mission. I was hoping to hear that my fears were misplaced because someone, somewhere, found a way to make online education egalitarian.

Nope. Instead, after taking issue with the statistics, Smith suggested that colleges could “white-label” services like his -- meaning, run them under the brand name of the college -- and use them to “triage” students so that the most resources could be directed to students who need them the most. That stood in tension with his argument about passing savings along to students, but never mind that.

Leaving aside the ethics of “white-labeling” -- which also came up in a discussion of the relationship between Trilogy, a for-profit boot camp provider, and Rutgers University, in which Rich Novak from Rutgers said that “students want the security of a boot camp that’s connected to a university” -- I was struck by the notion of triage.

The research I’ve seen on achievement gaps suggests that one of the strongest factors in helping young black men succeed in college is the establishment of relationships with people on campus. Putting a screen in between gets in the way and reduces the effectiveness of those relationships. To the extent that we want to reduce or eliminate achievement gaps, moving more heavily online may be an issue. But the dots went mostly unconnected.

I drew more hope from a couple of panels featuring community college presidents. DeRionne Pollard, the president of Montgomery College, spoke of the Community Engagement Centers her college has established in several neighborhoods. As I understood her, the centers have people posted there whose job it is to help residents navigate and decipher the college. She mentioned a man who lived two blocks away from her campus but described it as “too far from me” to attend.

When she pressed, he clarified that it was too complicated and intimidating. (As Natalie Harder put it in another panel, most civilians have no idea what a “bursar” is.) The centers are staffed with people tasked with helping people like him make sense of the college and what it can offer. As Pollard put it, “Community has to be a verb.” I may steal that one.

Similarly, a panel on the challenges facing rural community colleges featured some moments of recognizable truth. Harder, from South Louisiana Community College, and Joe Garcia, from the Colorado Community College System, spoke with palpable, affectionate frustration. They mentioned the difficulty of training students for jobs that don’t exist, or that only exist far away, or that don’t pay well, or that only have two or three openings in the area. As Garcia put it, how many cosmetologists does a town of 1,000 people need? Even when they identify openings, they can saturate those markets with the first cohort through a program.

Harder and Garcia both noted that rural community colleges tend to be cost centers. That’s partly a function of the lack of economies of scale, and partly a function of the lack of available adjuncts in most disciplines. (When the local area has a notably low educational attainment rate, and campuses are 100 miles apart, there just aren’t that many qualified faculty around.) That means they have to staff with more full-timers, which is great in some ways, but which makes tight budgets that much tighter. They also noted that in many communities, the community college is one of the only employers of any size that pays a decent wage.

Accordingly, many locals look to it less as a source of education or training than as a source of employment in itself, like a prison. In a community like that, layoffs are especially devastating; they’re taken as a betrayal of the community. I had to smile when Garcia mentioned an editorial in one town blasting the local community college for charging tuition for a new program. Both Harder and Garcia noted that in many rural areas, what the people really want isn’t so much a point of entry into the new economy as a magical reanimation of the older one. That would be a tall order, even if the college were better funded.

The day ended with former Tennessee governor Bill Haslam discussing the various free community college programs in Tennessee. As a Republican governor in a red state, he established the most effective and broad-based free community college program in the country. He wasn’t afraid to challenge the audience, though. His major message to college presidents was that they need to decide whose college it is, and the correct answer, in his view, is the state’s. It doesn’t belong to the students, and/or the faculty, and/or the alumni, and/or the donors. It’s an arm of the state, constituted to serve the citizens of the state.

He viewed higher education primarily through the lens of economic development. As he put it, “my advice to other governors is that you can’t let yourself become irrelevant to higher education, because it’s your differentiator in attracting businesses.” In discussing the antipathy to public higher education recently demonstrated by his counterparts in Arizona and Alaska, he spoke the unspeakable: “If you poll most faculties, they’d be what, 90 percent Democrat? It would be naïve to think that doesn’t have an effect. It shouldn’t, but it does.” The audience didn’t seem to know quite what to do with that.

I have to give kudos to the speakers, and organizers, for the amount of candor in the discussions. People have been remarkably frank about what they’re doing. But some connecting of the dots could go a long way.

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