11.12.13

SHAKING OUT THE EXCESS CAPACITY.

The Cold Spring Shops position is that there is excess capacity in higher education's subprime sector, where the model is access - assessment - remediation - retention.  An Inside Higher Ed lament by Ry Rivard suggests exactly that.

The dean at Pioneer Valley Community contemplates what comes next.
There’s no painless and elegant way to correct regional overcapacity.  That’s especially true in an industry like higher education that is both labor-intensive and built on the assumption of growth.

If you were the president of a small, struggling, not-terribly-prestigious liberal arts college in a region without much population growth, what would you do?  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that you’ve hit the practical limits of tuition discounting (“presidential scholarships”) as a strategy, and let’s further assume that you’ve already done a decent job of marketing.  And let’s say that your budget is mostly tuition-driven, so you can’t rely on a hefty endowment to bail you out. The freebies have already been taken.  And keep in mind that presidents can’t act alone; they have to work with trustees, alumni, faculty, students, faculty, and staff, among others.  Each of those has its own interests, and if it perceives those interests as threatened, will respond accordingly.

You could try to cut your way out.  In the very short term, this is probably the path of least resistance, at least if it starts with cutting by attrition.  But over time, this strategy has natural limits.  Beyond a certain point, it threatens the ability of the college to compete.
That's been a Cold Spring Shops theme for some time, and I'm well-versed in the dynamics of decline, because that was the reality on the railroads for many years. "Something similar happened to the railroads in the late 1960s: there was simply insufficient money to handle the routine maintenance, and the payloads got heavier and the tracks deteriorated and the trains moved more slowly, if at all."

First, you notice that fewer passengers are riding the sleeping cars, so you reduce the number of sleeping cars.

Next, you effectively discontinue the high-class trains by adding the stops made and the baggage carried by the accommodation trains to the high-class trains.  Legally, you've discontinued an accommodation train, but the short-haul passengers are the bulk of your passenger load.

You notice that fewer passengers are riding the etiolated high-class trains over long distances, and, with the additional stops, that the expense of maintaining track and signals suitable for 100 mph operation yields a negative return on investment.  And you take out the cab signals and train control, and defer maintenance on the track.

That's a false economy, because the priority freight trains, carrying perishables and automobiles and piggyback trailers, can no longer get over the road as fast, and the truckers, public subsidies or no, eat your lunch on that traffic.

You're therefore able to retrench further, with a mostly single-speed 59 mph railroad being more than adequate to get the remaining Dead Freight, local passengers, and nursery stock over the road and on time about half the time.

The generalization is left to the reader as an exercise.

Quality people want to work with quality equipment, indeed.
The railroads discovered that in some ways they had to turn the clock back to 1945, replacing some second and third tracks, and replacing some main lines that had been taken out of service. Are any academic administrators sufficiently forward-looking today? Or will the current crop of administrators have to retire, as was the case with the old-line railroad administrators, before there is any change?
The evidence, nine years on, does not look good for higher education.

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