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Vocational education costs sink auto program

Last week, the Barton Community College (Great Bend, KS) Board of Trustees voted to terminate the school’s automotive program. The Trustees cited declining enrollment, high program costs and financial losses to justify closing the program.

Vocational education is expensive, but a community college is not a business. Taxpayers fund public education because our communities have certain needs that businesses don’t address because it doesn’t make “business sense.” Profits and losses motivate businesses; public service motivates a community college.

In WCC’s case, Washtenaw County taxpayers provide extraordinarily generous funding which more than covers the cost of expensive vocational and occupational programs that don’t make money but that meet community needs nonetheless.

If Great Bend, KS is like Ann Arbor, MI or Boston, MA or Irving, TX, it needs auto mechanics. The high cost of training mechanics doesn’t diminish a community’s need for them. It should not matter that a program “loses” money when the community is willing to bear the “loss.”

That doesn’t stop misguided community college administrators from applying irrelevant business standards to academic programs. Frankly, the discussion of “gains” and “losses” at a community college should be reserved exclusively for the college administration. Only the business operations of a college should be judged by how much they and return.

Why? It goes back to the question of need. When a community needs workers with specific skills, the cost of training them is immaterial because the demand is inelastic. On the other hand, there is a real, tangible limit to the amount of administration a community college needs. While some administration is necessary, more administration is not better. It’s just more expensive.

Vocational education offers value; excess administration does not

WCC’s administrative costs demonstrate this and have for years. Prior to the current administration, the size of the administration never exceeded the size of the full-time faculty. It did not take long for the administration to disregard this long-standing convention.

The WCC community established these limits for a reason. The size of the full-time faculty is a good measure of the size of the student body. Expanding the size of the administration has never resulted in increased enrollment. Likewise, decreasing the size of the administration has never caused enrollment to drop. But increasing the size of the administration increases the students’ cost of attendance. Administration growth also has the uncanny ability to generate construction projects. Both of these appreciably increase the cost of attendance, which causes enrollment to drop.

The Board of Trustees should never make decisions about eliminating programs based on the cost to operate them. Instead, the decision to keep or close a program should rest on the needs of the community. If enrollment in a needed program declines, the college should make the effort to boost enrollment. Administrative positions should always be evaluated on their cost relative to the value they return to the community.

Photo Credit: R. Miller , via Flickr