college, inc.

Interview: Dr. Gail Mellow

“You'll spend $3,150 a year on tuition [here]. At DeVry, a for-profit next door to me, you're going to spend over 200 percent more.”
Dr. Gail Mellow

She's the president of LaGuardia Community College, Queens, N.Y. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 17, 2010.

Let's just talk about where community colleges are in the United States right now. What are the forces acting on you, and what are your challenges at this point in time?

One of the things I think is important to say is that community colleges are as fundamental to the ecology of higher education as clean air and clean water is to a good environment. They are absolutely the place where almost half of all undergraduates in the United States go to college. Sometimes we're a little bit invisible, maybe like that clean air and clean water, because the presumption of who's going to college is somebody who got driven up in the family station wagon, dropped off at Princeton. ... And that's not who's going to college in America.

Who's going to college in America are my students. They're students who are working. They sometimes have family or they're taking care of their family. They're going to school part-time. They're struggling. ...

The typical community college student, and actually the typical American college student, is somebody who's about 25 years old who is working, usually at least part-time, often full-time, who has family responsibilities and doesn't look like your typical 19-year-old coed. ...

How are America's community colleges doing?

I think they're under great pressure. I think that there's an explosion of enrollment this year, and most of us have been turning away students. In California, I know tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of students who couldn't even come in.

The other thing is that we're being systematically underfunded. There's a disinvestment from the public sources that serve us. Community colleges on a per capita basis get one-third the amount of public money that a four-year college gets. Nationally, we get less money than elementary schools do.

That's because your tuition is so much less than what it is at a four-year traditional school.

That's in part, but it's also about the levels of public support that we are getting. So part of it is the tuition, but the other part is simply the amount of money that is allocated to you by the state government ... With us, it's the City of New York. ...

So you're under pressure because state budgets are dwindling.

Because we were underfunded to begin with. … So as the expectations rise, and as the funding actually dwindles, goes down and down each year, the pressure to perform with limited resources really is creating, I think, a tension. I have to be honest, though: It's the kind of tension that I would welcome. ...

Right now, the United States is about 10th among all the big developed countries in terms of the number of students who get a two-year college degree. We used to be first. If we have the opportunity with some investment and some focus to be first again, I want to be part of that.

But you're having to close your doors to students because you're over capacity. ...

We are having to do that. I fear for what that's going to mean, how it's going to play out. I think most community colleges do it in a very different way, though. We don't say, "If we're going to have to close our doors, we're only going take the top 10 percent." That's what a four-year college would do. ... Basically, what LaGuardia Community College has done, and other colleges throughout the country have said, [is], "Come to us, and when we're full, we're going to shut the door."

So, first come, first served?

It really is first come, first served.

Why are so many people coming back to school, this 25-year-old student that you describe as your prototypical student?

I think because the world has changed. We are in a knowledge economy now. We're in the middle of an old industrial area in Queens, and it used to be [that] the building we were in made paper bags. The building next to us manufactured automobiles. The building across from us did the Swingline staplers that so many of us have. None of those are [made] in the United States anymore. ... To just simply work, to make it as an adult, you are going to need an education, because the economy is about knowledge.

So, where are people going to work? They're going to work in health care. They're going to work in media design. Like you, they're going to be working in front of cameras. They're going to be the guys who are working behind us who are setting up. They're going to be doing things that really feed a very different kind of industry. And to do that, you need skills and knowledge that a college provides.

What are your graduation rates like, ... and do you track their success?

We do track their success. And I think the answer that I want to give you is that it's mixed. ... For the four-year colleges, about 60 percent of the students that they select ever graduate with a degree.

At America's community colleges, where we take everybody, people who have a GED, a high school diploma -- a lot of students have high school diplomas but don't really have high school-level skills. At LaGuardia, we graduate about 26 percent of those students in six years. And if we keep going, I graduate students at eight years and nine years and 10 years because they're taking one class every semester at night after working all the time. If I were to have my dream, I would want that number to be higher. I'd want it to be 100 percent.

And quicker.

And quicker if it makes sense for that student. Often it does. But given the economies that I've just talked about, given that students don't get the kind of financial aid support that they need, that we can't give scholarships to students, that these students are working, if I could make it so that students didn't have to work and could go to school full-time, it would be quicker.

One of the challenges is that community college students don't do that because they simply can't afford to do that. They're raising families; they're taking care of themselves; they're taking care of other members of their family. ...

There's a new player on the block: for-profit universities. Why should a student choose a community college over a for-profit university? Is there a reason?

Well, one reason, frankly, is just money. LaGuardia Community College, you'll spend -- and we're a sort of expensive community college in the national scene. You'll spend -- I know exactly -- you'll spend $3,150 a year of tuition [here]. At DeVry [University], a for-profit that's basically next door to me, you're going to spend over 200 percent more than that. You're going to spend over $10,000 for that same degree.

So one of the issues is, what kind of debt load should we be asking poor students to carry? And I think the answer to that really depends. One of the things you can be after you leave LaGuardia is a nurse. And if you pass your nursing national licensure, as about almost 95 percent of our students do, you're almost immediately going to be making $68,000, $70,000 a year. it. It's worth it at $10,000 a year; it's certainly worth it at $3,000 a year.

If you're going to go out and work [at something like] what some of your guys are doing, setting up the lights here, which is a wonderful, exciting job, working on Broadway, you're not going to be making $70,000 a year. At least I don't think they are. And so I think we have to grapple as Americans with, what should it cost to go to college, and who should bear that cost? And should people be making a profit on that?

And certainly, at $10,000 a year, the DeVrys of the world, the for-profits, are making a profit for their shareholders. They're offering, I think, a reasonable amount of good education for the narrow band in which they have decided to play. So you're not going to educate the artists there; you're not going to get the historians; you're not going to get the fabulous artists who are designing the Web sites. You're probably not going to get engineers; you're not going to get lawyers. You're not going to get a lot of the things that we think is part of a civil society. So I think part of it is, where do you spend your money?

You're saying they cherry-pick?

They do. They're good businessmen. I mean, if I was a for-profit, I'd be doing exactly what they did. They figured out, "Where can I put the least amount, what costs the least in terms of the kind of education that you offer, and then how can I really be successful with those students?" I mean, that's a good model. It's not that they're not serving students; it's that it's very expensive, and can we afford it as a society?

If somebody wants to be a nurse, why would they pay five times more or three times more for that education, that degree if they could come to a community college?

Well, one of the issues might be there might not be room at that community college for that nurse who wanted to come in. Right now, we have about 300 students in our nursing program. I have 1,000 students on a wait list. ...

That's the society failing to give them the choice or the opportunity to have the lower-cost education because they didn't get a good place in the line.

That's right. That's exactly right. So part of it is sort of understanding at a macro level what's happening to higher education in America. One of the other things about the for-profits, they're not just very good businessmen in picking out what college courses to offer, what degrees or majors to offer --

What "products" is what they call them.

What products, if you would. (Laughs.) OK. But the other thing is, how do they get what they deliver? And basically they get it from, I would argue, public higher education. That's who educates their faculty; that's who creates the knowledge; that's who puts together the curriculum. They then expand upon it, do different things, homogenize it. ...

But they really are using public dollars, in this case, in terms of how they develop their faculty to offer a quality product for the areas that they do. I think as a country we need to say, where should we be investing in education? What's the long-term investment strategy in order for America to really thrive?

They're saying let the market decide. They're taking advantage of niches in the market that they can go exploit, if you will. ...

They are very, very clever. And again, I admire this in terms of how they structure financial aid. In New York state, for example, about 5 percent of all the public dollars that go for tuition assistance go to the for-profit sector. But they only educate about 2.5 percent, or about half of that number.

You're saying they get a disproportionate amount of the public money that's available [per] student?

They do. And I think as a society we say, where should that money go? Should we put it so that more students can be nurses and more students get the help they need to either stay in high school or complete high school or come to LaGuardia, or should we allow the market to decide that? No, we should spend 200 percent of what it would cost at LaGuardia in order for you to go to a for-profit down the street. I mean, I do think they're tough decisions. We are a free-market society, and we hold those things to be dear. I also think we have to think about the national interest. ...

[The for-profits] say that students are coming and willing to pay more, not just because all the seats are filled at LaGuardia Community College, but because their work schedules are such that they aren't free to come to class; you're not flexible enough. ...

Yeah, no, that's absolutely not true. Don't believe that part, because community colleges all through America -- I'll give you an example of my schedule. I'm no different. We offer classes, we start at a quarter to 7:00 in the morning. We go to 10:45 at night. We offer classes on Saturday and Sunday. We offer classes partially online and totally online. We offer them in intensives and stretched-out semesters. The flexibility is not really an issue.

I will tell you one of the things I do think the for-profits do quite well, and I think that's both advise students and help them get jobs after they've completed their degrees. And to do that you need more money. ...

Well, people are going to say: "Hey, why should my taxpayer dollars go into this when these for-profits exist? These students that go to for-profits can get federal loans. And the market can best decide rather than basically government [to] run schools or finance schools." What's the best offering? What's the best education?

I think we should really look at where our competition is internationally. And what we look at when we look at China, when we look at India, when we look at France, when we look at the U.K., what we find are that those countries are now educating more people than the United States. Who funds them? Well, it's not the marketplace. It really is a government's investment in its people because it believes that the return to that society is enormous.

I can give you all the statistics about if you're educated how much better your community is in terms of the taxes that you pay and the social services that you don't need. But I also think we need, just in the way we looked at banks, and we said, "Banks don't need any government." Well, it turns out banks needed some government. They needed some regulation.

Why? Because the marketplace unfettered by any rules really made certain people very, very wealthy, and it really damned the rest of us. And I don't want us to do that to education. So to let the marketplace decide where America should invest her dollars I'm afraid will end up very much like letting the marketplace decide how we should invest dollars in banks, how Wall Street should put together mortgage packages.

I'm very interested in that point about an unfettered market not serving students. And I understand how it didn't in the case of banks. Maybe I'm making this too broad, but how specifically is it failing to align with the best interests of students?

It's failing to align with the best interests of students because it's asking them to leave college with a debt burden that will then impede their ability to move forward swiftly. And if you can get the same amount of education -- and again, this is an investment of government dollars, so we want to say it's the marketplace.

And that's true. But the same dollars, the same government dollars -- actually more government dollars -- are going into each one of those students at a for-profit college. So for the same amount of dollars, you could have educated a student at LaGuardia and they would not have that debt burden and be able to be productive in society. So I do think we need to make decisions about that. ...

So you have 14,000 students here right now?

Well, I have about 16,000 credit students, but I also have about another 45,000 non-credit students who are here for ESL [English as a Second Language], GED, and also workforce development, learning how to work in retail sales, how to do import-export, how to work in health care doing EMT [emergency medical technician], being a nurse's aide. I mean, there's a whole range of activities.

So you've got 60,000 students that you're serving?

About 60,000 people, yes.

And how many more could you serve?

I would hope we could probably get another 15 percent. I look at, what does my community need me to serve? And basically, if you need a college education right now to be a middle-class person -- and I look in Queens, and I see that less than 17 percent of the people who live in my community have that college education, I think that gap is where I come in. ...

We've got to move [our retention rate] to 20 percent. If we're really going to be serious about preparing an America that's going to have a middle class, we're not going to have a middle class anymore. We're going to have really poor people, and we're going to have really rich people, and we're going to have nobody in between.

The retention rate. So you can get above that sort of 25 percent that actually get a degree.

Yes. And to do that, it's sort of like I'm backing down from graduation and saying, "First let me keep them the whole semester. Then let me keep them the whole next semester," and really sort of building the pearls that were on that necklace to really keep those students here. If you can keep them here, if they can graduate, I know their lives are materially changed forever. You'll never take that away from them. They will always have that education. ...

And is there anything that you've learned or can learn from the for-profits?

Oh, I think yes. They spend a lot of time, for example, on faculty development. They have to because they have no full-time faculty, so they've got to get them up to speed. But I think that's a really important investment.

I think the work that they do, really paying attention, getting students jobs when they graduate, that's very important. I think their intensive counseling really helps students. I think the whole financial package -- I mean, to come in and say, "Look, I'm going to make it OK for you," I would love to be able to do that for my students.

So your students come in, and just to get that $3,100 that they need to get through the first year, you can't really give them much help on that?

I don't give them the amount of help I would like to.

And that's a lot of money?

And that's a lot of money.

So I've got to find $3,100, and you don't have a staff available to link me up with the people that can loan me that money or grant me that money.

I do have staff who will help you. We'll certainly do financial aid packaging. We will sit with you. But I won't be able to do the amount that if I had more people that I could do. So it's really about dimensionality and amount. Can you come back 12 times, or am I going to say, "Look, here's the FAFSA" -- which is the federal financial aid application, [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] -- "sit in front of the computer. If you've got a question, come and ask me."

Now, at a for-profit, I bet somebody's sitting next to them all the time. Does it make a difference? Yeah.

Because I could get up and leave the computer.

That's right. You can get up and leave the computer. And I don't think when students do that they realize that they've made a choice: That's a trajectory often for a long time, for the rest of their lives, until they see the final way back into education. ...

... I understand that you don't have enough slots available, but let's say I score, and I get one of those slots. It sounds to me with the growth that I see in the for-profit sector that a lot of students are still deciding to go down the street and go to DeVry or Strayer [University] or University of Phoenix. Why?

I think in part it's marketing. I do not have anywhere near the marketing budget that a for-profit college has. ...

But that's a lot of marketing power to get me to spend four times more in tuition?

You're presuming that you'd know it's four times more. If you just think, "Boy, I just lost my job; I need to do something," or, "I've been out of high school for a year, and man, it's terrible out in the street; I've got to get a college education," ... and the only thing you see is a for-profit college -- it's on the TV; it's on the radio; it's in magazines; it's on billboards -- so you think, "Well, I'm going to go there." And they're like, "No problem." They really play down the debt. They say: "You can do this. It's going to be so easy. I'll make it all happen for you."

That's going to feel very different if you come to LaGuardia. We're going to say, "Look, it's going to cost you $3,150 for the whole year." And we're going to test you. We're going to make sure you have the academic skills that are necessary to really take an English class and a calculus class and an economics class.

We're really going to make sure that the education is of high quality. I think that might feel tough to students. They don't really, I think, when they walk in the door after being bombarded by the advertising, really understand that LaGuardia, which in this case is one block away from a for-profit college, is so much less expensive and the quality is as good or better. And the range of offerings is probably broader. Why? Because I don't have the marketing money to get that message out.

Couldn't you afford a billboard out here that just said "DeVry" and had a number next to it, and then you and you're down there?

We could. But it would be one billboard, and I don't think it would really match their saturation of the subways.

So the number one reason you think is marketing?

If you push me to the wall I would say yes. I think that's far and above the largest reason. I'm sure that there are others. ...

And you're thinking about this all the time. And it's marketing.

There's one more, frankly, and that is the ability to be involved in the political process. And you know that the political process really also has to be about money. I have zero --

Talking about lobbying.

Talking about lobbying and being connected, giving contributions to political campaigns. Public higher education is prohibited from doing that. As a college I can't say, "Well, instead of giving tutoring money, I'm going to give that to Senator X." But [a] for-profit college can and does do that.

And certainly that's how, again, in terms of a marketplace, that's how American business runs as well. There's a lot of connection between rules and regulations and laws and money that's given to politicians and how it all sort of creates an American regulatory system.

Is that fair?

I don't know what "fair" means in that context. Is it the right way? I would say no.

Is it fair to the student? You've got a product; they've got a product. Your hands are tied in terms of equal marketing and equal politicizing in Washington. Is that fair to the student?

That's a hard question for me to answer. It's just -- somehow those words don't resonate to me in an honest way.

OK. ... You've said that we have to think about this as a country as to what we're offering students, so I was using that perspective and bringing it, you know, perhaps in blunt terms.

What I think is that it's totally misguided as national higher education policy, and that it will bankrupt us in a way that unregulated mortgages bankrupted us. It is taking precious dollars, and where they should go, where they're going to do the most good, where the return on investment is largest, instead we have allowed market forces to say, "Whoever can put up the biggest ads and deliver the most intensive focus on recruiting students, they're the winners." And I think as a country we then lose.

... What do you mean when you say it's a bad expenditure of public money?

When we look at how federal financial aid is structured, it is structured based on tuition, so the people who have the highest tuition get the most federal financial aid. ... I'm making it very overly simplistic. But basically, the more tuition you charge, the more money you're going to get in order to support that.

So for a for-profit, the person down the street charges about $10,000 a year. I charge you about $3,000 a year. Right now, federal financial aid is a little over $5,000.

So my student can get total tuition -- they'll get $3,150. At the for-profit, if they get total tuition, they would get $5,000-plus, $5,200-some. So there's a couple thousand dollars per student, OK? Multiply that times millions.

But there's more than that, because there's also state financial aid, again, which is governmental. And again, it's based on tuition. So my students' tuition at $3,150 is already paid for. The $10,000 still has a gap. Well, now the state financial aid can come in.

So there are lots of taxpayer dollars going into the for-profit colleges. And again, remember then part of the money is going to profit, is going to the shareholders. None of the money that comes to LaGuardia is going to anyplace else than back into paying our teachers and our faculty.

That's grant money, or loan?

That is grant money.

No student pays it back?

That's real money out the door, and no student --

Taxpayers' money.

-- pays it back. Taxpayers pay it back. And when you get more complex, when you get into the loans, the other thing -- and this is what Obama's American Graduation Initiative tried to address. Let's say that student who now has maybe $3,000 left of that $10,000 after you add the scholarship you got from the feds and the scholarship you got from the state, they have $3,000. They get a loan from a private lender. Well, if he pays that loan back, the bank gets to keep all that money. If he defaults on that loan, he goes away and you can't find him, then the federal government comes in and pays 97 percent of what was left of that loan. And so there's lots and lots of ways in which colleges that are for-profit have and use taxpayer dollars.

They're racking up a bigger bill with the taxpayer?

Yes. ...

What about online education? Even more flexibility. I mean, that's how they market it. That's how the for-profits talk about it.

I think there is great promise in online education, and there's probably not a community college in this country that doesn't offer online education. I think the challenge is, who is it right for? One of the things that many community colleges have seen is that it's really great for certain groups of students, but ... to be online, you have to be very self-disciplined.

It's one thing to get up for a 7:00 a.m. class. It's another thing to see your computer, and you can either play ... some cool computer game with guns and stuff, or you can do your economics class.

Probably the temptation for some students is not to do the econ class, and so we still probably need to think about ways to really make a connection with students, and really with faculty. Online can do that. And I think for all of higher education, online education is transformative. ...

But really, when you think about it, if just having things available online is all it took to get a college degree, there are beautiful libraries in America; all the information is there. Why don't we just go and learn to be engineers? Well, there's this magic thing called a faculty member. And really for most of us that's really made the difference. Not all the difference -- some of us can do some things, and some people are highly motivated. And you want to learn something -- let's say you're a sailor. You want to learn about building boats and sailing; you don't need a faculty member. ... Algebra, a little different than that.

So how do you do that? How do you learn those things? That's another powerful piece about America's community colleges that is very different. Most for-profit colleges have zero full-time faculty. They have faculty. They come in; they're itinerant workers.

We treasure our faculty. We develop them. We promote them. We give them the tools to be scholar-practitioners, to really understand the changing dynamics of students and students' lives, and I think there is some magic to that. Now, some of those are just as great online. Most faculty are great online teachers, and so I do think all of American higher education is going to change with the online context.

But unless we really invest in faculty, we are not going to have the kind of quality that we need, and I worry about that. I worry about that for myself, frankly. Do I have enough full-time faculty? Can I give them enough support so that they can innovate and learn all the new technology and try new things? But I worry very much about that in a for-profit arena.

The for-profit schools say your carrying costs of tenured faculty are just too high. It's an inefficient model, and it's going to go out the door; it can't be supported by so many schools. So many schools are struggling under the costs of maintaining these treasured faculty members, as you put it.

I do think the economics of higher education is tough, and I wish I had an easy response to that. One of the things I will say is there certainly are senior tenured faculty who haven't opened a book or cared about a student in 20 years. At community colleges, I just find that much less. I think that's much more a four-year-college sort of mind-set.

At community colleges, because the faculty work so hard, they teach so many more classes than they do at a four-year college, and they're so close to the students, that I really don't get that sort of, "I'm thinking. I'm going to close my door. I can't do anything about you. I want to figure out about French dietary habits in the 17th century."

It's like, no, these faculty are for, "How can I teach algebra to somebody who wants to be an EMT because their family is starving?" There's grittiness to American community colleges that the faculty really connect with.

So when for-profits say that the whole tenure system is a luxury we can't afford, they really have to break that down, because I don't think that's true in American community colleges. It might be true other places. And certainly the issue of how do you have productive tenured faculty is an honest one. I think a lot of places, and I would include LaGuardia as one of those, have extraordinary senior faculty who I would hire today even though they've been hired here for 30 years. They're extraordinary. So it's a complex issue, but it depends.

So what Wall Street says, what the for-profits say, is that under your model, the cost of the faculty are greater and you're not nimble enough. You can't contract them for a course, like they do with the for-profits, and let them go after that course is done.

Actually, we do do some of that, because adjunct faculty, if we need that, if I need a particular kind of network secretary guy to teach in a new emerging field, and he just came from Microsoft, and I need him, I can hire him.

I think there's something else here, though. There really is a sense that higher education is an enduring value, and I don't want it to be like perfume or toilet paper. I don't want it to be something [you] just pull off the shelf, or when you're done, you throw it over your shoulder. I do think there is a value to investing in intellectual inquiry and the ability to understand how to teach students. If it was all about just having the knowledge, it's there already. It's there in libraries; it's there on the Internet. It's really about the scholarship of teaching and learning that has to be developed and prized. And without full-time faculty, you really don't do that. So I think this small market, where the for-profits are, there probably are a lot of faculty they can churn in and out of that. ...

What do you say to those who simply say, "Look, education is a business"?

I would say that that is shortsighted, and I would say that that fundamentally undervalues the impact on higher education in all of society. Maybe there was a time when education was a business, when we educated 2 percent of the people. And actually then it was a business, but it was more the business of the church, you know, the Anglican church, and everybody else was sort of running -- Notre Dame ran stuff. And it was a business. So there was a market; you had to figure it out.

But that's when we could have one guy, gal in this case, who's at the top of the company; everybody else, a lot less education. But they were putting together stuff. And they were rolling out Model Ts. I mean, look at Detroit. Look at what happens when you don't have an educated workforce. You have people who are skilled, but you have no market left for them to function [in].

We've got to fundamentally rethink the impact of higher education on the American economy. And other places are doing that. China opens up the equivalent of a new University of Michigan, a new, big, 50,000-person university, every year. And they've been doing this for the last 10 years. India is the same way.

If we want to understand where the world is going, we have to see that education is sort of the only thing between us and chaos. And I happen to be very patriotic. I really love America. I love our values. I don't want to give them over to places that really think it's only about the market. I really believe fundamentally that we need to educate everybody, and that's why I love the democratic impulses of America's community colleges, who say, "If you have the will to do it, we're going to figure out how to make it real for you." ...

When you talk to your colleagues in the for-profit space, like Jorge Klor de Alva, [senior vice president of academic excellence and director of the University of Phoenix National Research Center of Apollo Group, Inc.,] at University of Phoenix, [what] do you say to him?

I think Jorge runs an amazing enterprise. He is himself a scholar. He is a product of a very traditional education. He worked in very traditional education. I think he's an innovator. I think they've done interesting things in the for-profits -- their national curriculum development, again.

In the U.S., we've never had a national college, and that's really what the University of Phoenix is. That's interesting how to think about accountability issues. I think they're interesting. I don't have a quibble with that. I think that there's a lot of space here. We have a tremendous need for education in the United States, so we should think about all of that. ...

Where I do quibble is that community colleges don't get the same amount of money as a student going to the University of Phoenix from the federal government. So it's really about equity in terms of the amount of money that we get.

And you think that the community college is a better buy for that student.

I would say absolutely the community college is a better buy for that student.

And they come out with less debt.

They come out with less debt. But I think it's also fair to say, we're a very big country; higher education is a very big enterprise, and there's room for a lot of diversity. So I wouldn't really want to shut down things that I think are of quality. And I think the University of Phoenix is of quality. What we need to do, though, is to really rethink the marketing of that and also really rethink the government's relationship to giving more resources to a for-profit than they would give to a community college.

What I hear you saying is that you're boxed in, that community colleges are stagnating because of certain limits on the amount of assistance that you can get from states and the federal government to allow you to have more seats, that you have more demand than you can satisfy.

We do have more demand at community colleges than we can satisfy. And I think with some more investment -- and really, at the federal level, one of the things about community colleges is that they're really structured very locally so that there is usually a local sponsor, a city or a county's, almost always a state, almost no federal government. But if we're going to really create changes in the number of students across the country who get college degrees, we really have to see the federal government play a larger role.

How are the for-profit schools forcing you to operate differently?

I think any kind of competition really forces you to look very deeply at yourself. Are you as effective and efficient as you can be? Have I replaced every light bulb in this place in order to make sure that they're energy-efficient? It's green, but also it saves me money.

They also, I think, really push students to question you differently. We have, for example, created a very exciting online career development activity that is very personalized and allows students to get a lot of advice that I wish I could do one on one with [them]. But they've really caused me to pay more attention to that.

And one of the things that's not as a result of the for-profits, but really about community colleges' desire to be deeply embedded in their community, is really paying attention to what businesses need. Now, we need to do that in terms of education.

We've been working with Goldman Sachs, for example, to really look at, what do small businesses need right here in Queens? And how can we leverage education so they understand about sourcing and financing and marketing and HR [human resources], so that they really can make a life for themselves?

We work with companies so that we really give them education. Let's say they have a new inventory system, and it won't be used well if all the employees don't really understand it. So it's education in little, bite-size methodologies, if you will, that really makes a difference in a business.

Community colleges have really had to think about education in very practical ways. We did that far before, and we'll continue to do that, no matter what the for-profits do. But in doing that, I think we demonstrate our value to the business in the community, and I think that's a very important thing to do.

It's a way in which I don't have the advertising dollars that a University of Phoenix or a DeVry does, but I really allow this community here in Queens to understand what I can do, what education can do for their employees and therefore their ability to function and create a society here.

So they tell me at the for-profits that they can come up with a new course, and you can enroll in it on Monday. They can do it over the weekend. They can come up with a whole new curriculum for a new course. Can you do that?

I can't do that. I'm not sure I'd want to do that. That doesn't sound like a great curriculum. Maybe it is. But one of the things that we also have to think about is, what does education mean? Is education like: "Oh, I've got to think of something. Here, I'll pull it together. There it is"? Or is it really a thoughtful process where you're connecting learning in technical ways and in deep ways, in ways that you're going to forget it the moment you walk out of the classroom versus the things that are really enduring and that will allow you to function in life?

So I do think that we might have less flexibility. The other piece, though, is that we also have to think of government's role in this. I go through multiple layers of approval to get a new degree program. In order to do that, we could really rethink what happens in government as well.

If, for example, government trusted the faculty here at LaGuardia to do the right thing and said, "We absolutely trust your faculty. You're not going to do something bogus. When you think a new course is needed or when you need to alter a new program, go right ahead and do it," that would also speed us up, because a lot of times we put the blame on faculty when it's really government structures.

You're talking about city.

City and state.

City and state government.


And DeVry down the street doesn't have to go through that.

That's right.

I was talking to a University of Phoenix manager. He said he put a bunch of smart people in the room, locked the door over the weekend, and they come up with a curriculum.

Again, that could be good. I don't want to say that necessarily that is bad. I mean, you do want to be responsive.

Why not? It sounds awfully --

It sounds awfully flip. But if you have really expert people -- for example, if you asked me to put together a course on the American community college, I'd whip out my book. I'd whip out 12 other things. I'd call eight other people that I know. We could probably, over the curriculum, do a pretty damn good job of outlining what you needed in terms of the content for a graduate course in the American community college.

What I would challenge, though, is, who's going to teach that? Who really knows that deeply? Is that the person who's going to be in that classroom? And again, that's where faculty expertise, I think, is important.

They say they come up with a course, they package it up, and they hand it to a professional, a practicing professional in the field. Say it's a nursing course; they hand the curriculum over, and they say, "This is what we want you to teach." Is there something wrong there?

Maybe not. ... I think in part, when you think about higher education, [you have] to think about a very broad canvas. There are pieces of that canvas that could be delivered very fast by experts who could suck up information. But that's going to be skating along a very narrow band. I think when we're talking about the whole canvas of higher education, you need something much deeper and much more thoughtful. It's not a Twitter experience. It's really something deeper and more profound.

And you talked earlier about it. We didn't go into it, but you offer a larger range of courses than what you would get at a for-profit school, that they essentially are -- my term -- cherry-picking the easy stuff.

Well, they are. I mean, we started out talking about all the students who aren't going to graduate from high school and where will they go. Then there's this whole other huge group of students who graduated from high school and don't have high school-level skills. They're at-risk students. Somebody needs to do something with them.

Will it be University of Phoenix? Not on your life. Why? That is really hard teaching. You've got to unteach or reteach, think differently. But if we don't figure out how to deal with those tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of students, again, we are going to not have a middle class. We are going to absolutely implode.

University of Phoenix takes no responsibility for that. They just go, "Well, I want to do the adult business student," or "I want to do the adult online technology student." And that's great. As a society, though, we need the students that I'm going to bring in who had terrible high school experiences, that they're going to be the next choreographer; they're going to be the next medical doctor; they're going to be the next scientist.

Why? They see the world differently. They really come in in different ways. But without me to give them the bridge between what they maybe could have learned or should have learned in high school but didn't, and they're now an adult, in order for them to really move into the world, they need me. University of Phoenix is never going to take responsibility for that. And [it's] part social mission and purpose. And DeVry and the University of Phoenix are really there to make a profit. It's a very different value system.

So you lose money on your nursing program?


How does that work?

When we offer a nursing program, if I compare that to an English program or history or economics program, I actually lose money for every student I take in. The amount of money I get from the state and the city and the amount of tuition that I have in no way allows me to offer the classes that I need to offer.

They're very intensive with technology. We have a lot of science. There are regulations from the National League for Nursing that, when you're on your clinical practical, when you're out in the hospital, there can only be one faculty member and 10 students, so it's a class of 10. I mean, it's very, very, very expensive.

And we offer that because we believe there should be nurses here in Queens, and community colleges throughout the country believe there should be nurses. And we are not going to charge them $50,000 a year to become a nurse. We think that that's a public good and that higher education, public higher education, is here for a public good.

But you can't take in too many nursing students, or you lose money.

We would lose money; it's true. But Queens would be better off. They'd have better health care. These are the issues, I think, about the economics of higher education that really are buried. People look at the cost of tuition. They really often don't look at the return, the benefit, and what we really need to do.

And I think you're right. You're posing all these different pieces of the economic structure that underpins higher education. And then I want to frame that, again, in a social structure, in a society that really needs great nurses. And I want to provide that.

But you've got to pay the bills.

I do have to pay the bills.

You have to pay the heat and the lights and keep this place going, pay your faculty.

It's true. And that's why I only have 300 nursing students instead of 1,000 nursing students, because Queens could take 1,000 nursing students, and so could the country.

And it also means that we basically take some money from one part and give it to another. So the people who are in English probably lose a little money to the nursing program. But that happens in all of higher education. If you look at where graduate programs get their money from, it's from undergraduate programs. It's not a new thing in higher education.

But in so many ways, the takeaway that I get from this, in talking to you, as a leader of a big community college, is that you're boxed in in many ways. You're prevented from expanding, and you have a passionate belief in the value and the necessity of expanding opportunities to people through a community college system, but that you're boxed in, that you're not able to satisfy the demand. You're not able to serve those that are at your doors.

You frame it as if I should be really depressed, and actually I'm very optimistic, and I'll tell you why. It's because every day, I see what an incredibly talented faculty and an amazing staff can do with the lives of students. So would I like to do more? Yes. Are the forces against me? Yes.

But I see these rays of hope. The American Graduation Initiative and President Obama is a ray of hope. The Gates Foundation saying, "I think community college is going to make a huge difference," it's a ray of hope. The U.S. Business Roundtable just put out a monograph talking about American competitiveness, and they said community colleges are very much a part of workforce competitiveness. All of those things are rays of hope for me. And I do think community colleges, while they're boxed in, we're not giving up, and we're going to keep moving forward.

Great. I'm not trying to depress you. But I am taking away that there's a lot of people that are not able to get in, that you could serve that you're not serving.

That's so true.


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posted may 4, 2010

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