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Public Institutions Aren’t Built to Compete with Each Other

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Public Institutions Aren’t Built to Compete with Each Other

 

Last week, Sara Goldrick-Rab amplified a tweet from RIcky Shabazz that caught my eye.  Apparently, the California State University Academic Senate recently passed a resolution imploring the state legislature to block community colleges from offering bachelor’s degrees.  The line of the resolution that jumped out at me was:

 

“The community colleges shall not proceed to offer the proposed program(s) in regard to which objections have been advanced unless or until the objecting segment’s concerns have been addressed to the satisfaction of the objecting segment.”  (emphasis added)

 

As I interpret it, the “segment” that is objecting is the California State Universities.

 

It’s a remarkable and revealing ask.  They aren’t simply objecting to community colleges offering bachelor’s degrees; the universities want to be granted a unilateral and uncontested veto power over them.  

 

That’s…wow.  Just, wow.

 

I wonder if they’d accede to giving the community colleges unilateral and uncontested veto power over their non-degree workforce programs and associate degrees.  

 

I’ll clarify here that I don’t work or live in California.  I don’t know the backstory, if any.  Experience tells me that there’s more to the story, and I’m not a field correspondent.

 

That said, the plain language of the resolution reveals a lot.

 

Any given program is vulnerable to objection on its merits.  If the resolution addressed one program proposed at one campus, and offered reasons behind opposition, I’d assume that it was an internal matter for which the usual processes would be sufficient.  In this case, though, the objection appears to be categorical.

 

Community college bachelor’s degrees exist in slightly over half of the states, though they’re more common in some (Florida) than others (Michigan).  In other words, the concept of a community college bachelor’s degree is not new.  They tend to be more commonly focused in workforce programs than in the liberal arts, and they’re more common in places that are geographically far from four-year public colleges.  The idea behind them is to make four-year degrees more economically and physically accessible to students who otherwise wouldn’t have a realistic option.  Ivy Love, from New America, found that CCB programs don’t siphon enrollment from existing four-year public colleges.  Instead, they siphon some from for-profits, and the rest are students who otherwise wouldn’t have matriculated in a four-year program at all.  They expand the pie.

 

The resolution notes that an already-existing state law prevents approval of CCB programs that are “duplicative” of existing programs.  One would think that would allay fears of diverting enrollments.  This resolution goes much farther, proposing to give the CSU folks what amounts to infinite veto authority.  

 

I’d guess that part of the motivation is a sort of prestige snobbery.  Those higher on the food chain are concerned that the lower orders are reaching above their station.  I understand academic status anxiety, but it really needs to be subsumed to what students need.  The same taxpayers support both CSU and community colleges; they wouldn’t be happy to see the two sectors using those resources to fight turf battles.  They should instead work together to help students.

 

And that’s where I think the lion’s share of the issue is to be found.  In an era of politically-driven austerity in which colleges are supposed to be run like businesses, possible enrollment loss to another sector is a survival issue.  Colleges are incentivized to compete with each other, deploying those same taxpayers’ dollars against each other.  If that means shutting some prospective students out of programs that would have benefited both the students and the state, well, then that’s what it means.  Colleges are compelled to treat students as means to ends, rather than as ends in themselves.  Many college leaders resist that tendency, to their credit, but at some point ethics can start to look like unilateral disarmament.  

 

Public institutions weren’t built to compete with each other.  They were built to serve the public.  Much of the “moral injury” of college administration comes from the constant tension between doing the morally or academically right thing and doing the economically necessary thing.  To the extent that economic necessity becomes stronger, it’s easy to predict which ways those decisions will lean.  

 

The CSU resolution is absurd in its own right, but its real significance is as a sign of just how desperate the moral conflicts are becoming.  That’s because we pit public institutions against each other, with taxpayers picking up the tab for the combatants.  A much better solution would involve supporting public institutions sufficiently to fulfill their missions without turning to internecine warfare.  Make it possible for them to work together to serve the public.  Do that, and nobody has to ask for unilateral veto power.

 



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