• 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

Stirring Pots

Getting the question right.

October 8, 2020
 
 

High School Friend on Right Ocean is a chemical engineer by training, and a good one. He once complained to me, sincerely, that the other grad students in his doctoral program in chemical engineering seemed a little slow. The guy knows his stuff.

Anyway, many years ago we were comparing notes on cooking. He explained something about convection, or heat, or whatever it was. I asked why stirring a pot of something hot seems to cool it down, even though heat is a form of energy and stirring is actually adding kinetic energy to the pot. He suppressed a smirk and explained that the amount of kinetic energy being added was trivial, and the cooling effect came from mixing. I wasn’t exactly wrong in saying that stirring added kinetic energy, but the scale was so far off that I missed the larger effect.

I was reminded of that in reading two pieces next to each other this week. The first is a report from the Center for American Progress comparing per-student funding across the different sectors of public higher education in America. It notes that, nationally, community colleges receive about $8,800 less per student in state aid than four-year publics. The gap is highest in … drum roll, please … New Jersey, at $14,000 per student.

Well, that explains a few things.

I fired up the calculator app on my phone for some quick math. Brookdale right now has around 11,000 students. If we were to attain parity -- just parity! -- with four-years, an additional $14,000 per student and an enrollment of around 11,000 students would lead to an additional $154 million per year. For a sense of scale, the annual operating budget of the entire college is about $82 million. Parity alone -- just parity! -- would come close to tripling our operating budget. At that point, we could hire more full-time faculty and staff, raise salaries to reflect the actual cost of living in the greater NYC metro, fix buildings, upgrade equipment, beef up professional development, reduce tuition, increase financial aid grants, and still have money left over to put in reserve for the next emergency. All it would take is funding parity. That’s it.

Then I saw this report in the Connecticut Mirror about the public higher education system in Connecticut and its request for more state funding. The Connecticut State College and Universities system -- which encompasses the community colleges and the four-year regionals, but not UConn -- was a shotgun merger designed to streamline administrative costs. As Roxann Riskin pointed out on Twitter, in 2018, the total administrative savings was estimated -- optimistically -- at $28 million. Now the system needs an infusion of $69 million to avoid catastrophe. Which means that even if the merger went without a hitch and every projected savings were realized -- a generous if -- they’d still be over $40 million short.

In other words, in this sector, talk of streamlining administration is similar to talking about the kinetic energy from stirring a pot. The scale is so far off that it leads to a false conclusion.

Community and state colleges -- I’ll leave out the research universities, which really are a different breed of cat -- aren’t going to cut their way to greatness, or even to solvency. By and large, they don’t have spending problems; they have revenue problems. They’ve been flatlined in good years and cut in bad years, even as they’ve taken on more mandates and higher health insurance costs. That’s the real story. My own college’s state funding hasn’t increased since at least 2005, and this year half of it was withheld. The story is similar at public colleges across the country. I’d guess that most people would struggle to thrive on half of what they made in 2005. That’s fundamentally a revenue problem.

Ultimately, of course, public sector revenue problems are the result of political choices, and those choices could have been made differently. Pandemics may be natural and random, but our responses to them are not.

I learned from my friend, and returned to stirring pots. People who care about public higher education need to start stirring pots, too.

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