28.7.09

MAKING THE TRANSFER. The Los Angeles Times has advice for cost-conscious collegians.

At a time when parental pocketbooks are strained, does it make sense to point high schoolers toward community colleges instead of four-year schools?

President Obama's plan to invigorate community colleges with a fresh dose of federal spending is winning accolades from pundits who have long maintained that the institutions are the unsung heroes of an affordable education.

Tuition at community colleges is about a tenth of the $25,000 charged by the average private university, according to a survey by CollegeBoard.

And kids who do a so-called two-plus-two -- two years at a community college and two years at a four-year university -- can often transfer into prestigious institutions they might not have gotten into when they were high school seniors.

But there are downsides to community college education as well. Community college students are less likely to complete their degrees than those who attend four-year institutions. And navigating the system of credits needed to transfer -- and graduate -- can be difficult.

In Illinois, the articulation agreements community colleges and the four-year publics reach make that transfer simpler. Such transfers to the pricey privates might be more difficult, depending on the policy. (Chicago's DePaul has articulation agreements, for example. Northwestern does not.)

That observation about pricing reinforces two points. One, a familiar one to regular readers, is that, recession or no, there is still a flight to perceived prestige degrees. A second, which is a new line of thinking for me (although it must have already occurred to someone), is that community colleges bear the same relationship to the research universities that the Canadian health service does to the drug companies. Community colleges place orders for large numbers of textbooks (whether the students buy and read them, something that bears on those attrition rates, is tangential) but their faculty are probably too busy (or perhaps not attached primarily to the academy or perhaps wrote pedestrian dissertations) to do the work that ultimately gets into textbooks. Perhaps Harvard gets Greg Mankiw more cheaply because he recovers some of his development costs from other purchasers of his book. That puts the rest of us at research institutions in an interesting position: the onus ought to be on researchers to produce work that might merit mention in a textbook eventually, and if the institution's or the department's reward structure don't encourage that kind of work, there's something wrong with the structure.

There's one other parallel: textbooks, like prescription drugs, trade in a market with substantial third-party participation (insurers private or public in the former, lenders public or private or rich relatives in the latter) which attenuates the pressure to discover the lowest cost consistent with some level of durability and content quality. Contrast a paperback macro or micro split edition with Burlington's Zephyrs from Motor Books, 128 pages, 50 with color, $36.95 plus tax, and most of the salient facts about the trains that were once world's fastest in one place.

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