• 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

No, Thanks: A Response to Kevin Carey

A well-intentioned nightmare.

December 13, 2019
 
 

In the Chronicle this week, Kevin Carey proposes his own route to free college: for colleges that agree to participate, eliminate tuition and instead accept $5,000 per FTE in federal funding. That way, states that have been generous to public higher ed will be rewarded, and states that haven’t will need to step up their funding if they want their people to get free college.

Carey’s proposal has much to recommend it. It “skips the middleman,” as he puts it, sending money directly to institutions themselves. That used to be how it worked, prior to the replacement of direct aid with Pell Grants in the early 1970s. Decades of subsequent tuition increases at double or more the rate of inflation testify to the failure of that idea. It’s likely to be of greatest benefit at low-cost public colleges, which tend to enroll more low-income students and students of color, so it would be progressive without really trying. And it provides an incentive for stingy states to loosen the purse strings.

But still, no.

Just to see what would happen, I looked at my own institution’s budget. Brookdale has a little over 11,000 students, but Carey uses FTEs as the measure, which tends to disadvantage colleges with many part-time students; in our case, we have just over 8,000 annual FTEs. Between tuition and fees, we bring in about $48 million per year toward a total operating budget of about $83 million. (That’s about 58 percent of the operating budget coming directly from tuition and fees.) If we replaced tuition and fees with Carey’s stipend, we’d bring in about $40 million, leaving an $8 million hole. Worse, we’d lose any agency in being able to fill the hole through anything other than cuts. Cutting 10 percent of the operating budget when about 80 percent of the budget is labor, and much of that labor is tenured and/or unionized, would not be pretty.

“Aha!” I hear hypothetical Kevin exclaim. (Hypothetical Kevin would have been a great name for an ’80s band.) “But wouldn’t that motivate the state to give you more?”

No. The state hasn’t raised our allocation since 1994. It’s free to at any time, but it hasn’t. Through Governors Whitman (Republican), DiFrancesco (Republican), McGreevey (Democrat), Codey (Democrat), Corzine (Democrat), Christie (Republican) and now Murphy (Democrat), our funding has remained the same. Not “after inflation,” either, but in nominal dollars. In other words, after inflation, we’re now in our third decade of uninterrupted cuts. If the state were itching to give us more money, it could just give us more money. That isn’t happening. Even “free community college” hasn’t resulted in new operating money, which is sort of amazing if you think about it.

One could be forgiven for noticing a pattern.

Of course, in many states such as my own, community colleges also draw on local sources of funding. Sometimes that’s from a dedicated property tax, as in Michigan; sometimes from local K-12 school districts, as in Pennsylvania; and sometimes as a direct appropriation from the county government, as it is here. In theory, if a state failed to step up, a county (or district) could. Although there, the story is even worse; we actually get fewer dollars from the county than we did 10 years ago, even before adjusting for inflation. The county contributes the statutory minimum. And we’re relatively lucky; many counties in the state don’t even do that. The county is free to increase its allocation at any time; it just doesn’t. No politician wants to run on a property tax increase.

Even worse, I could imagine a case in which the state wanted to sign on but the county didn’t, and a game of budgetary hot potato ensued. (Budgetary Hot Potato could open for Hypothetical Kevin.) The state will kick in half of the gap if the county will, but they’re under the control of different political parties, so no. Or vice versa. Either way, we’re consigned to austerity via gridlock. This is not progressive.

As awful as the current system is, and it is, the college at least has some agency other than cutting. In Carey’s proposed system, cuts would be the only tool available. When all you have is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail.

Carey is effectively gambling that states (and localities) could be nudged, coerced, cajoled, bribed or otherwise enticed to pay more than they’re paying now, if the college were held hostage. I see no basis for that assumption. If they wouldn’t step up to a nine-to-one match for Medicaid, they certainly won’t step up for this.

And that’s looking at one year. Play it out over, say, five or 10 years. What are the odds that the per-FTE stipend would go up over time by at least the rate of inflation for services? Or assume the eventual recession. States have to balance their budgets, so they’d have to cut spending at exactly the time that enrollments go up. (Community college enrollments go up during recessions, as the opportunity cost of education goes down.) That would either bring tuition back -- as it did at CUNY in the ’70s -- or lead to draconian service cuts, whether in the form of layoffs, waiting lists or both. Either outcome would open up new space for for-profits to swoop in, emboldened by the new regime of accreditation shopping. Nope, nope, nope.

We’ve had decades’ worth of austerity in public higher education. It doesn’t work. If we want to make public higher education affordable, we need to fund it as the public good it was originally designed to be. We can certainly do that if we want; the recent Washington Post pieces on the Afghanistan war show that there’s plenty of money sloshing around for purposes we consider important. We just need to make higher ed important.

Carey’s suggestion is well-intended, and heaven knows the topic is important. But this would turn a slow bleed into a rapid death spiral. No, thanks.

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