Enrollment vs Funding
Declining enrollment. This is what is driving most of the administration’s decisions these days. I have been in the system long enough to have seen this movie before. When money is tight, what is available tends to be spent on three things: 1) hiring more administrators, 2) hiring expert consultants, and 3) adopting new technology. Interestingly, when enrollment is up, and revenue is ﬂowing in hand over ﬁst from all those student fees and tuition from DCE courses, the dollars are also spent on hiring more administrators and more consultants, and adding more technology.
As a result, our community colleges are choked with non-education-based administrators focused on generating the right optics and metrics to justify their hire, piles of unheeded reports from expert consultants, and expensive technology systems, many of which are outdated and obsolete and cannot talk to and often undermine each other. The colleges’ decades-long inability to get out of the cycle of spending money on this tripartite promise-land means money not spent on support for faculty and education professionals who work directly with students. In this newest round of declining enrollment, there is indication already that the colleges will once again be dedicating scarce resources to generating optics, metrics, and reports, and purchasing technology instead of where they should be going – to directly support teaching and learning.
Take for instance one resource-starved staple of teaching and learning: the ofﬁce hour and faculty ofﬁce space. Upwards of two-thirds of all courses at the community colleges are now taught under a contract that neither requires nor compensates instructors for holding ofﬁce hours so that students can have reliable access to their professors outside of class. Even if instructors teaching under the DCE contract wanted to offer, voluntarily, ofﬁce hours to better serve their students (as many do), they are usually provided with no ofﬁce space in which to do so. Much has been written about this abysmal new status quo of dedicated adjunct professors holding ofﬁce hours in hallways, stairwells, and parking lots. Less has been understood about how this failure to dedicate resources to teaching and learning makes our students feel about themselves.
My suggestion on how to address the issue of declining enrollment is this: re-focus the colleges’ resources on teaching and learning. Back ﬁll the full-time positions of retirees with and hire more full-time faculty and professional staff. Make the learning environment such that students have a chance to develop rapport with all their classroom instructors, by, for example, providing ofﬁce space and compensation to adjunct faculty to offer ofﬁce hours, and getting the names of all instructors into the course schedule by the time students start registering for classes, so that student have a chance to take another course from an instructor with whom they have connected. Make sure that the students’ advisors, and other front-line education support professionals (reference librarians, ﬁnancial aid ofﬁcers, learning coordinators, etc.) have the suitable physical spaces and resources they need to fully serve the students who seek them out.
It is the focus on teaching and learning, and not the pretense that our students are our customers, that has the potential to draw students to our community colleges. If resources were focused primarily on supporting our direct interaction with students and not allocated as an afterthought, our community colleges might have a chance to stop serving as the punch line of jokes in poor taste about personal missteps. And ﬁscally responsible college-bound high school students might more seriously consider attending their community’s colleges for their general education requirements before they transfer to their more debt-generating choices.
Right now, the Massachusetts Teachers Association is gearing up to ﬁght for increased funding for our public schools, including our public higher education institutions. In work-shops on this initiative, participants have been asked to imagine how they might want to spend this money. This is a good exercise. We need to be ready to advise on how we think the money should be spent. Otherwise, should more funding materialize, we will ﬁnd ourselves with more misguided metrics, unhelpful reports from experts, and yet another piece of software that will once again fail to deliver student success as promised.