• 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

Things That Seem Obvious

Community college realities.

July 8, 2018
 
 

Last week was the annual family summer vacation, so I didn’t pay as much attention to the academic interwebs as I usually do. But even in the midst of painfully rediscovering why folks of Scandinavian heritage need lead-apron-strength sunscreen, I couldn’t resist @Mantia’s tweet asking people to name something that’s obvious to people in your industry or field, but mostly unknown outside it. On the spur of the moment, I replied that “most community college students are part-time.” It struck me as true, non-obvious to the outside observer, and rife with implications about certain policy judgments.

But I haven’t been able to shake the question since. So, a few more possible responses.

First, a tip of the cap to John Sigelski, from HACC, for pointing out that most community college students are female. It’s verifiable, and obvious to those of us in the trenches, but largely below the radar of the general public.

A few more:

Decisions about which credits to accept are made by the receiving institution. Folks who criticize community colleges on the grounds that many credits don’t transfer are aiming at the wrong target.  If we want to improve the success rates of community college graduates at four-year schools, the first thing we have to do is pressure those four-year schools to give credit where credit is due.  The internal politics of curriculum committees will make that difficult, which is all the more reason to exert pressure. Without pressure, departments there can comfortably default to “no,” and often do.  That option needs to be made uncomfortable.

Disinvestment is a driver of higher tuition.  (The tonier version of this is “price does not equal cost.”)  To give one example, state funding to my own college is the same in nominal dollars -- that is, even without adjusting for inflation -- as it was in 1995.  County funding is actually lower than it was ten years ago. Yet health insurance costs go up every single year. The equation of “tuition increase” to “lack of discipline” is ignorant, false, and destructive.  Cost-shifting is different from cost-increasing, even if both show up in price.

“Hard” vocational programs are more expensive to run than “soft” academic ones.  The least expensive classes to run are the ones that can run well with thirty students per section, and without any specialized equipment.  That tends to describe the Intro to Psychs of the world. Hands-on classes in vocational areas require more equipment, more people to tend the equipment, and more instructors per student.  In practice, we engage in cross-subsidy, with the profits generated by, say, History offsetting some of the losses generated by, say, Nursing. This matters because many outsiders assume that if we could just drop the “ivory tower” stuff and focus entirely on job readiness, the budget would balance.  In fact, we’d go bankrupt. If you want to remake community colleges as entirely vocational, be prepared to pony up more money. A lot more.

“Administrative Bloat” is a myth.  In the community college sector, administrations have run lean for decades, and still do.  In fact, they’ve absorbed far more layoffs than faculty have. I don’t know to what extent this is true among, say, research universities, but it’s utterly true here.  Every time I read a diatribe about “deanlets” or “bullshit jobs,” I know I’m reading someone who has no idea what he’s talking about. Yet the diatribes keep coming. As the last few years of our politics have shown, it’s easier to find scapegoats than solutions.  Besides, convincing legislators that administrations are wasteful is a really good way to prevent them from increasing subsidies that are managed by...you guessed it...administrators. See “disinvestment,” above.

Students are working harder than ever.  That’s because going to college is financially harder than it used to be.  Tuition is part of that, but so are housing, textbooks, and transportation.  And many entry-level hourly jobs rely on “flexible” hours that make an already difficult situation that much harder to stabilize.  I’m consistently impressed when I talk to students and hear about the sacrifices they make to get their degrees; they put my own to shame. 

Community colleges are more representative of American higher education than are Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.  You wouldn’t know it from press coverage, but it’s true.  At this level, debates about, say, affirmative action in admissions are moot; we take everybody.  But from the major media, you’d think little else mattered. It would be lovely to see community colleges get something resembling proportional representation in media coverage. 

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add? What is something about community colleges that is obvious from the inside, but largely unknown on the outside?
 

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