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On Monday I had the chance to address the annual gathering of state directors of community college systems, in Nashville. It’s a knowledgeable and self-assured group, unafraid to challenge speakers. That’s good and bad. The discussion was lively, which was fun, but I had the embarrassing experience of realizing live, in front of an audience, that I hadn’t fully thought through one of my points. This will be an attempt to think it through a little more, even if not fully.

(Just one aside about Nashville, which was lovely: a country band I saw on Sunday ended its set with “Comfortably Numb,” by Pink Floyd. It sort of worked, but it would never have occurred to me that I’d hear that song by a country band.)

The point was about the geographic distribution of wealth in the US. Roughly half of the community colleges in the country were built in the 1960’s, and the vast majority was within a few years of the 1960’s in either direction. That was the height of the geographic dispersion of wealth across the country. At that time, you could find solid middle classes in most of the country.  Productivity, in economic terms, was relatively even across the states. There were exceptions, such as Appalachia and the rural deep South, but they were exceptions. Community colleges fit that economy well, and found an enthusiastic reception because they fit emerging local needs.

Fifty years later, the economy has changed. Now, wealth is much more concentrated, both socially and geographically. A few major metros have taken off spectacularly, and a few smaller ones have really energized.  But much of the country is stagnating or declining. You can see the difference easily in housing costs. If you compare the ratio of costs between, say, Buffalo and New York City fifty years ago to the ratio now, you see New York City really pulling away. It’s not a perfect indicator, but it’s a pretty good one. And the same holds if you compare rural areas to urban ones in various states.  

But the geographic distribution of community colleges, and the funding mechanisms for them, remains pretty much what it was fifty years ago.  That means that in some areas of the country, they’re preparing students to leave. That doesn’t fit cleanly with local funding, local political support, or local philanthropy.

Someone objected that, in fact, community colleges supply the workforce that will attract new businesses. Yes and no. They supply the workforce that _may_ attract new businesses. Nearly any area is better off with a well-prepared workforce than without one. (My favorite argument for public higher education in both Massachusetts and New Jersey: we don’t have oil, or sunny/warm climates, or cheap land. If we’re going to compete, it’s going to be on quality of workers.) But in areas of the country that have shrinking populations and years of economic decline behind them, the argument that supply of workers creates demand for them may be hard to sustain. Heck, the academic job market itself refutes the idea that supply creates demand.

Someone else challenged me with some variation on “so you’re saying that we have too many community colleges, especially in rural areas?” (I didn’t write it verbatim.) That wasn’t the intent, but I was caught flatfooted by the interpretation. No, that wasn’t what I was saying. So what was I saying?

I see it more as an argument for rethinking both funding and delivery. To the extent that students are likelier to pack up and leave after graduation than they used to be, I see an argument for shifting the funding source up the food chain. (After the talk, someone from EMSI told me that now, about 70% of community college grads remain in the local area. That’s high in absolute terms, but twenty years ago it was 85%.  In other words, in the last generation, the percentage that leaves has doubled, and is still climbing.) In other words, during the generation that has seen significant reduction in state-level support, graduates are likelier to conduct job searches statewide. The increasing mismatch between funding sources and reality on the ground may explain part of why it’s harder to get support than it once was.

Historically, community colleges have distinguished themselves from “state” colleges. Typically, the former offered associate degrees and the latter offered bachelor’s.  (Florida and Ohio, among others, call some community colleges “state” colleges, but the general pattern holds.) But the distinction may be getting harder to justify. It may be time to speak of a higher ed ecosystem, with the different parts feeding each other.  That may also help justify arguments for cross-sector funding parity, which would be a welcome change.

I can’t pretend that I have a fully thought-out answer, but the line of inquiry strikes me as important. What are the implications for a distributed system when wealth has concentrated in a few specific places?

Anyway, my thanks to the state system directors for the chance to speak to them, and for correctly identifying a gap in my argument. Wise and worldly readers, I need your help. What are other implications of wealth concentration for what community colleges should do?

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