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Sherman Dorn caught my eye recently with a proposal that “general education” courses at community colleges should be offered for free. The idea was to encourage people to see community colleges as viable and attractive feeders, to bring down student loan burdens, and to encourage community colleges to focus on student success in the academic core.

To which I say, no.  Thanks, but no.

And I say that as someone who believes strongly that community colleges would be well-advised to double down on the liberal arts core. The last chapter of my book mentions that strategy specifically. So why can’t I sign on with Dorn’s proposal?

Two reasons: unintended consequences, and non-instructional costs.

The second is the easier to explain.  Yes, we pay faculty.  But we also pay for electricity, and counselors, and advisers, and financial aid staff, and the registrar, and maintenance, and even, yes, “administration.”  We pay for library materials, heating and cooling, IT, and accessibility services.  Demagogues like to demonize that as “overhead” or “waste,” but they get curiously quiet when asked to specify just what, exactly, they would cut.  

Some courses cost less to teach than others.  Many of the cheapest to teach are the gen eds, since many of them don’t require specialized labs, or clinical sites, or expensive technology.  By charging the same for courses across the board, we’re able to cross-subsidize the more expensive stuff.  A full section of Intro to Psych, taught by an adjunct, generates revenue that helps offset the considerable cost of Nursing clinicals.  Take away the revenue from Psych, and we’d have to drop Nursing.  

To be fair, Dorn’s proposal refers to “the first new dollars” of state money to pay for the free courses. The implication is that the state will make up for the loss of tuition and fees from those courses, and that it will provide “new” money instead of just telling colleges to eat it.

Color me skeptical.

As with the proposal last week to make community colleges free, I’d expect to see some serious misgivings at the state level as soon as they figure out that they’re essentially replacing federal money -- in the form of financial aid -- with state money.  It would be lovely to assume a dollar for dollar match and then some, but lots of things would be lovely to assume.  And I maintain my view that becoming more dependent on state finances would prove catastrophic when the next recession hits.  Which it will.

The picture gets more complicated when you shift from a state perspective to a campus one.  Once you start designating certain courses as “gen ed” and others as not, colleges would have approximately zero incentive to improve gen ed, and would instead focus entirely on other things.  After all, those other things bring in operating revenue, which the gen eds don’t.  I’d expect to see a serious move away from A.A. degrees, which are laden with gen ed, and towards short-term certificates and A.A.S. degrees, in which gen eds are much lighter.  States would try to lower their bills by “streamlining” gen ed, essentially by standardizing it.  Colleges would have every incentive to go along with that project, since gen ed would become a money drain.  I see students and faculty emerging with fewer options, larger class sizes, and an inexorable pattern of watering-down.

I once worked at a college with a “diversity” requirement: students had to take at least one “diversity-certified” course to get a degree.  Predictably, a rush ensued to get anything and everything “diversity-certified,” no matter how far the stretch.  I foresee the converse of that here, with departments and colleges rushing to redesignate classes as outside of gen ed, except for the barest core.  If “gen ed” comes to be synonymous with “money pit,” colleges will minimize it.  They’ll have to.  

Dorn’s proposal is well-intended, and I can see the appeal.  But it’s full of perverse incentives for both states and colleges, and I just don’t have enough faith in civic virtue to assume that everyone will look past their own incentives.  “Free” is a magic word, and I’m a supporter of it in certain contexts (like OER and mini-prep classes).  But getting that granular at the level of operating funding, and trusting in the farsighted wisdom of state legislatures during recessions, just seems like an accident waiting to happen.

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