Free For All

Tomorrow night President Obama will propose a new federal program that offers students attending community colleges two years of free tuition. While I don’t think the odds are very good that the current Congress will agree to join hands with the president on this one, I do think that by giving voice to this idea, and linking it to the Tennessee Promise program that does something similar already, the president has at least goosed the United States toward something that substantially expands student enrollments in community colleges.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that over the coming decade either a federal program or a series of state level programs like the Tennessee Promise do take shape. What might be the impact on history departments?

The first thing to remember is that any program that provides free, or almost free, community college education will accelerate a trend that has been going on for some time. Already BA granting institutions give away a substantial portion of the freshman year to those students who show up with AP or IB scores above a certain level. For example, in 2012, the George Mason University history department gave away 424 credits to students based on those scores, costing us somewhere between $166,000 and $487,000 in lost tuition revenue. Already around more than one-third of our new students in any given year come to us as transfers, mostly from the three excellent community colleges in our local area.

If a new federal or state program were to provide an additional price incentive to students to begin at their local community colleges, we (and others like us) would see an even more substantial drop in tuition revenues from our freshman and sophomore courses.

One of the dirty little secrets of higher education is that most graduate programs are subsidized by tuition revenue generated by general education courses. General education classes are larger and increasingly taught by contingent faculty who are paid a good bit less than tenure track faculty, so the revenue per course is much greater. That revenue is what makes it possible for us to offer our seniors seminars with 15-18 students and our graduate students courses with even lower enrollments.

It’s not that difficult to imagine a circumstance ten years hence in which we have lost a big chunk of that general education revenue to our area community colleges. If that happens, as I am convinced it will, we need to be planning now for what our departments will look like in the fall of 2025. It’s not that difficult to imagine what the big changes will be:

  1. Fewer tenure track faculty
  2. Fewer graduate students, especially PhD students

Given the state of the academic job market, fewer PhD students would not be the worst thing to happen for all concerned. And if #1 comes to pass as well, we really, really need to start constricting enrollments in our PhD programs. Or start new tracks in those programs that explicitly prepare students for careers as community college faculty.

If we are mostly teaching upper division courses, then there will certainly not be the need for anywhere near the number of tenure track faculty at many history departments today. We just won’t be teaching as many students and that, combined with the loss of revenue from general education courses, means we are almost certainly going to get smaller.

Assuming history departments around the country are going to get smaller, what will excellence look like in those departments? How will we know we are doing great things? How will we define ourselves and our importance to the overall educational project of the university if the vast majority of our teaching is to majors or graduate students?

We have a lot of good things to say for ourselves and why we matter. But we need to start having these conversations now rather than later.