Some College, No Degree, and Critical Mass

Tennessee is blowing the curve for the rest of us. I say that with admitted envy.

It’s expanding its best-in-the-country free community college program to include working adults with some college experience, but without degrees.  The idea is that it’s easier to increase the number of degree-holders in the workforce if you start with people who are already partway there, and who have shown the interest and aptitude for college-level work.

The most heartening piece of the Tennessee Reconnect program, though, is here:

“Colleges were asked whether popular offices that oversee financial aid, veterans’ services and student support were open on weekends or past 5 p.m. on weekdays. They also were asked about food pantries on campus, available childcare or adult-specific orientation.”

That’s just excellent. To borrow a phrase from Michelle Asha Cooper, it’s about creating student-ready colleges.

The tricky part, I suspect, will be reaching critical mass.  I hope the program architects have built in (or will build in) some sort of stop-loss fiscal arrangement for colleges in case it takes a little while for critical mass to develop.

That’s where many well-intentioned programs come to grief.

Keeping campus offices open longer means paying more people, or paying people more.  Either way, it means increasing costs. If you have a surge of enrollment, that’s fine; the surge more than covers the marginal cost.  But if the enrollment increase is small and/or gradual, there’s a difficult interlude during which the college is losing money. Depending on how tight the college budget already is — in the community college world, that’s mostly obvious — expansions of services that don’t pay for themselves almost immediately are the first to go.  

Which makes sense, if you think about it.  If I have to reduce hours to balance the budget, one of the first things I’d look at is which times are busy and which aren’t.  Given the choice between covering times I know will be busy, and times that I hope will eventually become busy, I’ll choose the former.  

I understand the political appeal of sending money entirely through students.  It forces colleges to tend to actual student needs. But they can only tend to new needs if they either have plenty of spare money on hand, or they get a new infusion.  The delay between a new round of overtime pay and a new infusion of tuition revenue can be prohibitive.

I saw a variation on this when I lived in Rochester, and I used to try to take the train to Albany to get to college.  (I’d catch a bus or cab from Albany to Williamstown.) Amtrak kept reducing the number of trains that ran through Rochester, presumably in response to funding shortfalls and modest ridership.  But as the number of trains reduced, so did the likelihood that I’d take one. They just weren’t there when I wanted them. Cutting services in response to slack demand can slacken demand even more, leading to even greater cuts in services.  

The same is true of branch campuses.  They cost money, but they also generate enrollment, and at least some of that enrollment presumably wouldn’t happen if the branch campus didn’t exist.  Closing a branch campus to save money will actually deliver a short-term hit to an already declining enrollment figure. There are times when that’s the best of some bad options, but pretending that it wouldn’t impact enrollment is just silly.

Tennessee is already leading the nation in improving access to community college. If it throws a bit of operating funding to the colleges directly — perhaps conditioned on expanding specific kinds of services that adult students need — it could get past the “critical mass” stage and get to the “pay for itself” stage quickly.  I wish Tennessee well, and will watch with interest.

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