Monday, July 30, 2007

Are Community Colleges Losing Their Way?

By Richard Vedder

I have written frequently about how four year universities have deviated from the straight educational path, becoming distracted by all sorts of non-academic things, and instilling a country club atmosphere for the students. I have always thought two types of schools were relatively immune from this sordid trend: the for profit schools and the community colleges.

I am not so sure about the community colleges anymore. I had heard a few stories that suggest that community colleges may be starting to abandon their single-minded emphasis on low cost, no nonsense instruction. For example, a few miles from me, the local two year school (Hocking College) that had long owned a lake that served as a laboratory for its students studying parks and recreation, was now trying to turn that lake into a luxury resort --kicking out locals who had swam and fished there for almost nothing for years. (It looks like their plans will be thwarted on legal grounds --violating the agreement signed at the time the lake was created).

Now my good friend Steve Stanek of the sainted Heartland Institute has told me an even wilder story. McHenry County College (MCC) serves moderately affluent Chicago suburbs. It announced that it wanted to borrow $26 million to build a minor league quality baseball stadium -- seemingly on speculation. The goal is to lure a Frontier League team to play in the stadium. No team has committed to go there if the facility is built. To be sure, the stadium is ostensibly part of a larger physical fitness center, but the MCC officials are not providing details on the project (so much for transparency in the Chicago suburbs).

The idea is horrible on many grounds. First, community colleges should concentrate on low cost education, not speculative investments with funds borrowed via tax-exempt bonds. Second, in this case, another group of totally private persons in the same county has been trying to do the same thing (respecting minor league baseball), so this is an attempt by a government entity (a college) to preempt a private effort financed without any public subsidies. Third, for higher ed officials to want to devote their major new effort to promoting professional sports rather than improving existing programs or offering new ones shows a shocking disdain for the basic purposes of higher education. Fourth, and actually almost irrelevant, it is a dumb idea on economic grounds, since even if a team came in the stadium would likely be a money loser unless subsidized by taxpayers. (Steve could probably cite a couple other objections, but enough is enough).

I have favored reallocating more of higher ed public funds towards community colleges on cost-saving grounds. But as these colleges join their four year counterparts in getting away from the basic purposes of higher education, the case grows for government to give all government assistance to students, none to the institutions that succumb to hubris and empire building at great cost to those financing these indulgences. And the case grows compelling to end the ability of colleges and universities to borrow on a tax exempt basis for non-educational purposes.


TC said...

Without a guarantee that a league sanctioned team would use the baseball field, I wouldn't touch those bonds with a 10 foot pole. And I believe they wold have a problem peddling them - even with a state tax exemption.

And doesn't Chicago already have two - count 'em, two professional baseball teams?

But as far as the education angle goes, when it comes to receiving taxpayers dollars, they are going to spend the money like Imelda Marcos on shoes.

The very same people who make proposals as cited in your blog have to go home and balance their check book and avoid insolvency. But when it's someone elses money, they are completely irresponsible.

Where is the outrage?

I don't think this will fly.

James said...

The problem is somewhat akin to the real estate bubble, in which easy credit flooded the market with cash and drove up prices, eventually affecting every segment of the market.

Higher education is flooded with cash from student loan money. This money is readily available at low interest rates, and backed by the government. Colleges know that students will take out the loans, no matter how insane tuition becomes, so they have absolutely no incentive to get costs under control. If the government quit subsidizing the colleges, both directly and via support for student loans, this would choke off the flow of cash and force the colleges to get rampant cost increases under control. There would be a lot of screaming initially, but ultimately all would benefit.