• 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

Thinking About the Sanders Plan

Some back-of-the-envelope math.

February 24, 2020
 
 

Now that Bernie Sanders has won several states, and his candidacy seems to have graduated from “making a point” to “having an actual shot,” I’ve started paying a bit more attention to his higher ed plan.

He calls for tuition-free public colleges and universities, which is relatively straightforward. He also calls for at least 75 percent of classes to be taught by full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty. His wife, Jane, used to be a college president, so he’s more familiar with this level of detail than many candidates would be.

I’ll use very round numbers, to allow for the inevitable unforeseen consequences.

Brookdale’s operating budget is about $83 million, of which slightly more than half comes from tuition and fees. Slightly more than half of its credits are taught by full-timers as part of load (with another several percentage points taught by full-timers as overload). Full-time faculty salaries start slightly under $60,000, plus benefits. The equivalent credits taught by adjunct faculty cost about $25,000.

On the other hand, single-payer health care would relieve the college (and its employees) of the cost of health-insurance premiums. That would reduce the cost of benefits significantly.

I won’t project enrollment changes, because the forces are contradictory. On one side, free tuition could be a boon for community college enrollment. On the other, free tuition at public four-year colleges could siphon students away. So for simplicity, I’ll assume those effects cancel each other out, at least in the short term. That could be wildly wrong, but I don’t have a solid basis for anything else.

Right now we have approximately 200 full-time faculty. To get to 75 percent, assuming relatively constant enrollment, we’d need about 300. The premium (full-time salary minus adjunct cost) is about $35,000 each at the entry level; $35,000 times 100 is $3.5 million. The total college budget for benefits is about $13 million. If we assume about two-thirds of that is health insurance (as opposed to retirement accounts and such), the college would save about $8.5 million there. So far, so good. We’re about $5 million up. Put differently, the operating budget could shrink to about $78 million.

But then we lose all of the tuition and fee revenue. It’s about 55 percent of the current budget, which comes out to around $46 million. If the budget shrank to $78 million as noted above, and we lost $46 million, we’d have to replace about 59 percent of the budget just to maintain.

Hmm.

Of course, these aren’t the only costs. Adding 100 new full-time faculty would require adding another dean or two, a few more office assistants and more help in HR and IT; maybe that totals another million. The real cost would be all the new offices. That last cost is capital, rather than operating, but it’s real. And new buildings require spending on HVAC, maintenance and the rest, so add something for that.

Unless, of course, the students instead head directly to four-year colleges. Those would cost the government a lot more and could send community colleges into death spirals. At this point, it’s anybody’s guess.

If the funding that replaces tuition and fees would be both ample and reliable, there could be a strong argument for it. My concern is more that political winds tend to shift. If the one revenue stream that’s partially under college control is taken entirely out of its control, and then reduced the next time party control changes, we’d face a fiscal bloodbath and probably closure.

Obviously, if the feds want to send us another $50 million per year or so in operating funds, and guarantee that it would rise with the cost of inflation in services* over time, I’m on board. But if it’s hotly contested and subject to annual adjustment, I’d be concerned that we’re always just one election away from oblivion.

All of that said, there’s plenty of election still to go. And even if he were to win, a President Sanders would still have to get the plan through Congress. Any political scientist worth their salt knows that Congress isn’t just a pass-through. Whatever comes out the other side, if anything, will bear the imprints of its journey. It isn’t pretty.

If they can design a dedicated revenue stream that won’t be vulnerable the next time party control shifts, then many of my misgivings are moot. I’d happily take that outcome. But if the whole thing could go haywire every two years, I’d rather maintain at least some level of campus control.

*That’s my passing reference to Baumol’s cost disease. I’m contractually obligated.

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