Parity is a Great Idea: Responding to Kevin Carey

Confessions of a Community College Dean

A few years ago, Kevin Carey proposed a new way to fund community colleges.  I responded with a “no, thanks.”  This week, he tried again.

Much better.

He divides the proposal into three parts: short-term training, undergraduate degrees, and graduate degrees.  For short-term training, he proposes using the ‘gainful employment’ guidelines to ensure that students only enroll in programs that offer a realistic shot at paying off.  Of course, that presupposes really good data, which is a stretch at this point, but the basic idea makes sense.  There have been too many boondoggles with short-term training.

I’d add some qualifiers.  In the data, it’s important to distinguish students who already have degrees from students who do not.  A fair number of students in certificate or training programs already have undergraduate degrees; they’re trying to change careers.  Those students are in a different place educationally than the students who have no other college experience.  Lumping them together in program outcomes may lead to misleading conclusions.

The part about graduate education is a bit more of a grab-bag, but I was struck that the discussion focuses mostly on master’s degree programs that charge tuition.  When I think about crises of graduate education, I tend to think about doctoral programs that lead to fields with weak job prospects.  In those cases, the loans that students take out probably aren’t for tuition, much of which may have been waived anyway.  They’re for living expenses.  Most fellowships and teaching assistantships pay very little, and research universities are often in relatively expensive places.  Putting too harsh a cap on borrowing for those could lead back to graduate school being a place only the wealthy can go.

From the outside, one might imagine that restricting the size of doctoral programs in fields with lousy job prospects would be a no-brainer.  But the dirty little secret is that universities need graduate assistants for cheap labor, whether as teaching assistants or research assistants.  That creates a real obstacle to significant cuts.

But my beat is community colleges, so I’ll focus there.

Carey does something radical enough that it warrants special notice: he proposes funding parity between community colleges and four-year colleges.  Yes, yes, yes.  He proposes starting with a federal operating aid figure of $10,000 per student per year, conditioned on not charging tuition to anyone with income under the national median. (The proposal a few years ago offered half as much.)  I’d add a few stipulations, such as a maintenance-of-effort requirement for states.  I don’t know how to do that with local funding when that local funding relies on referenda.  I’d also index the amount to the inflation rate for services, so we don’t fall into a Baumol’s cost disease trap over time.

Community colleges as a sector have become more porous than they once were.  They teach far more dual enrollment classes in/with high schools than they used to, which raises questions about funding models.  (Who gets the FTE?)  On the other end, community colleges in just over half of the states can offer at least a few selected bachelor’s degrees, and 3 + 1 agreements are becoming more common.  As the boundaries dissolve, funding parity becomes a pragmatic imperative as well as a moral one.  So, kudos.

While we’re at it, I’d add funding for “adult basic education” classes.  Those are the basic literacy and numeracy classes that aren’t usually job-specific.  ABE classes are life-changing, but they’re badly underfunded and (therefore) underprovided.  Family literacy and adult literacy programs pay social dividends for generations; they deserve robust support.

A consistently transparent funding mechanism would help colleges plan.  A consistently transparent pricing mechanism would help students and families plan.  Both would be significant improvements over the current system.  Politically, it’s a major reach, but it’s a reach worth trying. So, that’s a yes from me.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?

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Advice Newsletter publication dates:
Tuesday, September 27, 2022
Diversity Newsletter publication date:
Tuesday, September 27, 2022