ORLANDO -- "My own college behaves much more like a private college these days than a public." Stephen M. Curtis, president of the Community College of Philadelphia, told fellow community college leaders here Sunday that this statement was true of his institution and many others. And he's not ashamed. When talking to elected officials, potential donors and others, "that's a line I use all the time," he said, in a session at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.
The steady erosion of state and local support for community colleges is often bemoaned at AACC sessions. Sunday's session, however, was different. Curtis -- and his fellow panelist, Rufus Glasper, chancellor of the Maricopa Community Colleges -- made clear that they wished that trends had unfolded in different ways. But they said it was time to get over it, and to recognize that community colleges must embrace ideas associated with privatization if they are to succeed in their various missions.
"We have no choice. The state funds are gone forever," said Glasper. Arizona is ahead of most states in withdrawing state support, and Glasper has been making versions of this argument (with regard to Maricopa) for several years. But now the conversation is about community colleges generally, and it's not just Glasper making the case.
Curtis and Glasper said that they decided to speak out based in part on recent discussions among the presidents of institutions that are members of RC-2020,  an invitation-only group of urban community colleges that periodically come together for private meetings. The emerging sense in that group, Curtis and Glasper said, is that discussions of community college financing need to be based more on realism than on mourning political trends. Glasper said that Maricopa's high point in terms of state share of its budget was in 1986, when Arizona provided 27 percent of the funds.
Curtis shared a table, showing the evolution of the Community College of Philadelphia budget between 1977-78 and 2010-11. Officially, Pennsylvania policy calls for the budgets of community colleges to be shared equally by three parties: state government, local government and students (through tuition). The table shows the gradual but clear path Pennsylvania has taken away from that philosophy.
Sources of Support for Community College of Philadelphia
|Year||Operating Budget||% From State||% From City||% From Tuition|
Both Curtis and Glasper referenced a table  created by D. Bruce Johnstone, a leading scholar of higher education who is former chancellor of the State University of New York. In the table, Johnstone looked at various qualities such as "mission" "ownership" and "sources of revenue," and established a continuum from "high 'publicness' " to "high 'privateness.' " For sources of revenue, the continuum goes from public funds as the primary source of college budgets to tuition funds as the primary source.
By such measures, Curtis said, his college is private. By next year, he said, the college will be close to having two-thirds of its revenue come from tuition revenue. But Curtis stressed that his college is embracing many other characteristics of privatization "and they are not all bad."
He noted that he does not need state approval for new degrees or curricular changes, that tuition increase are controlled by his board without state or local authorities having veto power, and that his board also has final say on use of budget funds. While tuition increases raise concerns about access, he said that the Community College of Philadelphia just finished its first fund-raising campaign, significantly exceeding a $10 million goal and raising $3 million for scholarships. And he read a long list of operations at his college and elsewhere that he said should be outsourced and could be in a private model: cleaning services, child care, snow removal and more.
Much of the private money raised financed building projects, which the state has largely stopped supporting. "We’re working around the state. We’re not counting on the state," Curtis said.
Glasper said that he doesn't see any meaningful rebound in state appropriations for another 7 to 10 years, so he wants Maricopa to consider a range of ideas -- many of them, he acknowledged, radical in the traditional definition of community college mission. He would like to see units of community colleges operate as profit centers, providing specialized training to businesses or others and producing revenue. "If we build a private for-profit, revenues come into the system." And this also means not worrying about calling students "customers," something many academics resist.
It's also time for colleges to consider larger shifts in their traditional means of providing education. He said, for example, that low-level remedial mathematics instruction is more expensive than other instruction. It is time, he said, to look for ways to increase effectiveness and bring down costs by, among other things, asking what would happen "if we didn't have a faculty member in front of every student; if we had computers instead."
Stopping Short of Santa Monica
In their presentations, Curtis and Glasper didn't mention the recent furor over Santa Monica College, which planned to charge more for some high-demand courses and then backed off  the idea amid widespread criticism.
“I would never have done it the Santa Monica way," Curtis said. "We can talk about privatization all we want, but we have to talk about core principles as well." Still, he was quick to note that his college -- and many others  -- already charge fees for high expense programs such as those in the health sciences. "I think that’s reasonable and inescapable."
One member of the audience also brought up Santa Monica, and argued that the motivation of the college -- to move transfer students more quickly to four-year campuses and to bring in revenue to create more sections -- was entirely lost in the public debate. This administrator embraced Curtis and Glasper's arguments that moving away from traditional models could help students, and he called Santa Monica's idea "progressive."
"If there is a lesson to be learned, it is about public relations," he said.
Practicalities and Worries
The audience at AACC events is largely composed of presidents and senior administrators and typically does not include faculty or student leaders who might be quick to challenge a philosophy of accepting privatization. Indeed Curtis is currently in a dispute with the faculty union  at the Community College of Philadelphia over spending and other priorities.
But even in the audience of administrators here, not everyone seemed entirely comfortable with the idea of simply embracing privatization as a model. Some questions were practical: How would you get faculty members on board? How far can you take privatization? Can you own the buildings and land that have been presumed to be owned by the state or a local entity?
There were also some philosophical questions -- although no one challenged the idea that traditional means of financing community colleges are likely dead or dying. One administrator asked how, if such a vision were to be embraced, community colleges would be different from for-profit colleges.
Another asked how the idea of community colleges competing for contracts with businesses, creating new profit-making ventures and looking for new markets might make them all competitors with one another. The AACC meeting is one where community college leaders today share ideas and talk of shared values, not one where people talk much about competition with one another.
"In the private world you do not necessarily share your best innovations with those who you begin to see as competitors," said one official here. He asked Glasper if he thought about "the impact on collegiality as we begin to see each other as competitors."
Replied Glasper: "I not only think about it; I live it." He joked that among the 10 campuses in the Maricopa system, "we have to come to national conferences to find out what we’re doing on the other side of town." But he returned to his theme that community colleges have no choice. Once, they could rely on enrollment-based formulas to pay the bills. Now, he said, competition to spur creative new approaches to revenue is needed for "our collective survival."