Writing for Bankrate.com, Christina Crouch has surveyed in some detail “Three Radical Plans” for reducing college costs [http://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/rethinking-college-costs-radical-plans.aspx].
The first two of these “three radical plans” have been addressed previously in posts to this blog: the “pay it forward” plan that originated in Oregon, that has been adopted or adapted in some form in 15 other states, and that is now in committee review in the U.S. House of Representatives. This plan allows students to attend public colleges and universities for free if they agree to pay a certain percentage of their future income, scaled to the type of institution that they attended and the type of degree that they obtained, back into the fund supporting the program. That state has to provide the initial, substantial funding, but its share of that funding will decline as the number of participating students who have graduated increases. So, unless there is some dramatic fluctuation in the number of students participating, the state will eventually have no obligation to fund public higher education. That obligation will have been transferred entirely to the students. It is clearly no accident that such a bill originated in Oregon, where the funding of public higher education has been in steep decline, and it is no surprise that other state governments, in particular those dominated by the Far Right, have found this an attractive alternative to sustained adequate public funding of public institutions.
Crouch highlights one of the features of the bill that the Far Right finds attractive, but that I think is simply a deliberately cynical way to sell it to students and parents and an aspect of the plan that ultimately undermines its sustainability: “The plan isn’t a loan, so borrowers would never be at risk of loan default, which can result in wage garnishment, collection costs and possible legal action. It also provides a safety net for unemployed graduates who wouldn’t be required to pay anything until they’re employed.” What the promoters of “individual responsibility” are saying here is that unlike student-loan debt, which cannot be eliminated even by bankruptcy (or, if it is owed to a private lender, even by death), this debt obligation can be defaulted on much more easily. For students who have seen their somewhat older siblings and peers struggling to make their monthly student-loan payments, this feature of the program will seem very attractive. But, of course, if a certain percentage of the participating students don’t meet their obligations, the state will have to provide the additional funding to sustain the program, which will easily be framed as covering the debts of deadbeats. The loophole will need to be closed or, what I think is more likely, the argument will be made that the program was poorly conceived and that the simplest solution is to shift the entire program to conventional loans administered through private lenders, which I suspect has been the ultimate goal anyway: that is, I suspect that it is political unfeasible for almost any state to step completely away from its funding obligations and to put all of the burden of the cost of “public” higher education on its students, but it is a process that becomes more political feasible in these kinds of stages. To be clear, I don’t think that this is at all what the bill’s Democratic sponsors had in mind, but I do think that it may be what many of its Republican supporters saw in it.
The second of these “three radical plans” is the awarding of retroactive degrees, primarily to students who were seeking but did not complete a baccalaureate but who may have satisfied the requirements of an associate degree. Indeed, a much smaller percentage of students may even have unknowingly met the requirements of a more generic baccalaureate degree. Some of these programs have been more “radical” than others because they have focused on students transferring from community colleges to universities and some have even included private as well as public institutions. But, on the whole, these types of effort don’t seem very “radical,” and despite all of their appeal to legislators and to private foundations that provide educational grants, they have simply not attracted very much interest from former students, even when those students have been contacted directly.
The last of these “three radical plans” is the Saxifrage School that has been developed in the Pittsburgh area. This plan takes the “metropolitan university” concept to its end point, eliminating the college campus entirely and merging the classroom with the community by holding classes in not-profit agencies and businesses during their “off hours.” This approach generates additional funding for the agencies (not coincidentally reducing their need for formal, tax-supported public subsidies) and businesses, while reducing the cost to students because the settings in which the classes are held are no longer solely used for education; instead, the cost is shared by the other purposes to which the spaces are put. This seems to be another one of those plans that seems to have been developed by well-meaning progressives without a recognition of how it will be exploited by those on the Far Right. In making their argument for the need for such an alternative, the developers of the Saxifrage School have focused on the “posh facilities” that many colleges and universities have built at great cost, and they have asserted that the elimination of that sort of overhead will allow a larger percentage of the significantly reduced tuition to be allocated to instruction.
But there are two very obvious, major issues with such a plan. First, anyone who has dealt with a registrar’s office in attempting to alter the location or the time slot in which a given class is scheduled can quickly imagine the nightmare scenarios in trying to schedule a large number of classes in a broad variety of locations that may or may not be available from one semester to another. Imagine the chaos among instructors and students when a class does need to be relocated, not just from one floor to another or from one building to another, but from one neighborhood to another. In short, if this model is successful, it is fairly easy to predict that it will either become a victim of its own success or become something else entirely. Second, if you grant that my first point is valid, then more and more of the revenues are going to have to go to administration—presumably even more than currently are allocated to administration at a conventional institution. If student services cannot be concentrated in centralized and presumably permanent locations, then more personnel will be required to provide them. Not only will these costs mean that less revenue will be available for instruction, but, from the start, this model seems to rely largely if not entirely on the exploitation of adjunct faculty. It may be that as overall tuition costs are reduced, a larger percentage of the available revenue will be allocated to instruction. But, if the reduction of space costs is passed on to the students as a reduction in tuition costs, the actual amount that individual instructors are being paid cannot be much different than what they are currently being paid, in total as a segment of the average institutional budget, and that percentage has shrunken to the point at which it is sustainable only with the continued exploitation of adjunct faculty. Moreover, if the administrative costs rise, the tuition will either have to rise correspondingly or the instructional costs will have to be reduced—because it is very unlikely that the space costs are going to do anything but increase.
I am going to close by reworking a comment that I made yesterday in another post to this blog, on charter schools: all of these gimmicky solutions represent the avoidance, rather than the confrontation, of the core issues facing public higher education: an unsustainable decline in state support, an unsustainable increase in administrative bloat, and an unsustainable increase in the exploitation of adjunct faculty. This de-professionalization of instruction is eventually going to create institutions, such as Western Governors University, in which corporate “educational providers” provide “contracted evaluators” as a substitute for faculty. Like the charter school movement, it will, in effect, seek to replace professionals with amateurs, to the detriment of both the educations that the institutions provide and the educations that their students receive.