In his Jan. 6 column, “What does state college education spending really buy?” Stephen Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center claimed “that the University of Maine System is able to produce associate degrees more cost-effectively than the state’s community college system.” In support of that claim, Bowen cites a simple method of dividing the cost of operations of each institution by the weighted average of degrees granted. What Mr. Bowen fails to consider are the nature and relative cost of the associate degrees offered.
The university system offers degrees that are offshoots of liberal arts and professional degree programs and therefore are much more economical to run than the trade, technical, and health care programs offered by the Maine Community College System, or MCCS. These programs, which constitute 75 percent of MCCS degree programs, require expensive equipment and supplies. You can’t learn the skills of the trade without practice using the tools, equipment and materials of the trade. In addition, many of these programs are required to maintain low faculty-to-student ratio for safety and accreditation reasons. These two factors alone go a long way to-ward accounting for the cost differential between the UMS and the MCCS associate degrees.
Bowen’s assumption that degrees alone are an accurate measurement of effectiveness also is flawed. Community colleges do much more than provide a simple pathway to a career; they provide an entry point to higher education for all students (regardless of their preparation), training for business and industry, and support for community initiatives for personal enrichment.
Many people come to community colleges for a semester, a year or even two years to take courses before transferring to another institution of higher education (usually one from the UMS or the MCCS). Most do so for the convenience and cost of studying close to home. Many of them leave without completing the requirements for a degree but with their personal educational goal accomplished. Others come to the community colleges for a single course or for specialized training through our business- and industry-driven continuing education programs. These students are not accounted for in Bowen’s study either and they must if one is to fairly assess the effectiveness of a community college.
Finally, Bowen’s analysis focuses solely on the cost to the taxpayer and not to the student. Many community college students are from low-income families or are displaced workers returning to college for training in a new field. They can afford to do so because the MCCS has made a commitment to keep tuition costs low. This accounts for the “profound effect,” to use Bowen’s words, that the MCCS has had on the granting of associate degree across the state. Cut the cost to the “taxpayer” and you will undercut the advances made in raising the educational level of Maine residents. Cut access to technical education and you will exacerbate the effect of the current economic downturn.
All of these points are obvious to anyone familiar with community colleges. It is clear that we need more than data to make sound fiscal decisions, as Bowen laments; we also need policymakers with a clear understanding of what community colleges do for Maine as well.
David B. Raymond is a humanities instructor and president of the faculty senate at Northern Maine Community College.