• 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.

Title

Induced Nondemand

When lack of supply leads to lack of demand.

July 8, 2021
 
 

Transportation scholars probably have a more elegant term for this, but “induced nondemand” at least gets to the gist of it.

In college, I would frequently catch the Amtrak train from Albany (the closest station to Williamstown) to Rochester and vice versa. It was how I could visit family during breaks, given that I didn’t have a car.

Getting from Albany to Rochester generally wasn’t awful. I remember the trains leaving Albany in the late afternoon, and if I got really lucky, sometimes I could catch a bus from Williamstown to Albany and then catch a semilegal cab from the bus depot to the train station. But the reverse was remarkably difficult; seemingly every year the number of times per day that the train would stop would dwindle. It was the late ’80s, so the details are fuzzy, but my general recollection was that by the end, there was a choice between very late night and very early morning, with nothing else. The reasoning that Amtrak offered, to the extent that it bothered, was that there wasn’t enough demand to justify running more.

Any given incremental change could have been defensible, or even prudent. But the cumulative effect over time was devastating. When the train only comes through once a day at 11 p.m., you’re effectively repelling any riders you might have had. Lack of supply begets lack of demand.

It doesn’t apply only to trains, of course. A few years after college, context long since lost to history, I asked a friend who her celebrity crushes were. She said she didn’t have any. When I looked quizzical, she clarified that “if I can’t have it, I don’t want it.” I had to concede the sanity of her position.

In the context of celebrity crushes, it doesn’t matter. But I’m seeing a similar dynamic with class offerings.

With enrollment having dropped steadily for years before the pandemic, and then dropping more with the pandemic, we’ve had to trim the number of sections we run each year. With each new round of cuts, the gaps get larger. Over the years, a given class that once ran every day and night at every location now might not run every night, or at every location. Students who might once have been able to build entire schedules at smaller locations no longer have the option.

The parallel isn’t perfect; online courses offer an option unlike anything offered to ’80s Amtrak. (Teleportation technology remains frustratingly elusive.) But they’re a mixed blessing. They can siphon off just enough demand to make cutting more sections seem prudent. But at some point, you hit the one-train-a-day problem. Without something like a critical mass of sections, even the ones that might normally do well can struggle. A student who might go to a location for multiple classes might not bother for one. It’s not worth the trouble.

The root of the issue isn’t exactly enrollment; it’s tuition dependence. If we had the funding to just run sections smaller, we would probably have healthier enrollment over all. The fuller slate of options would allow more prospective students to build schedules that would make sense for them. Smaller sections would also help professors work more closely with students, with likely positive effects on retention and graduation rates. But when more than half of the operating budget comes from tuition and fees, and we have fewer people paying tuition and fees, we have to do what we have to do.

If the college were a for-profit company, the correct response would probably refer to the way a cookie crumbles. But community colleges are more like public transportation than like restaurants. Community colleges exist not to make money for their owners, but to serve the community. And the community members they serve are often the ones without the means for more expensive options. Asking an eleemosynary institution to act like a for-profit company is a category mistake. A for-profit can drop its least profitable customers. A public service exists precisely to help the least profitable people.

Applying the wrong logic forces terrible dilemmas. It pushes service cuts that hurt the people who need the service most. It asks those with the fewest options to be more flexible than everyone else. It’s the wrong logic.

When I went to grad school at Rutgers, I remember quickly being impressed by how frequent, and crowded, the N.J. Transit trains to N.Y.C. were. They were a marked contrast to the redeye Amtraks I had known. The frequency of service became self-fulfilling, just as Amtrak’s paucity of service did. The trains ran often enough, and quickly enough, that people counted on them.

People count on community colleges, too.

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