what higher ed might share with the ferguson p.d.

This has been hanging in my mind ever since the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson police department came out a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been loathe to write about it for fear of trivializing the events in Ferguson. Also, it seems somewhat obvious. But I think it’s important to highlight how the problem the Ferguson PD is facing is not a problem unique to the criminal justice system, but that it shares with other social institutions. Since I haven’t seen it discussed elsewhere — though feel free to comment if you have — here goes.

In its damning indictment of the Ferguson PD — an indictment that has already cost the police chief and the city manager their jobs — DOJ points to the city’s focus on generating revenue as causing many of its problems. In combination with systemic racism, which the DOJ report also documents, the city of Ferguson has come to see its residents — especially its African-American residents — as cash machines rather than citizens it is meant to serve and protect. In the words of the report,

The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement….Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on ‘productivity,’ meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.

Sometimes I worry that something analogous is in the future of higher ed. Not just that budget cuts will starve it into a shadow of its former self, or that it is coming to serve more as a mechanism of social exclusion than mobility. (Though I worry about those things too.)

My biggest fear is that a similar focus on revenue generation — on seeing students not as people to be educated but as income streams — will essentially corrupt the institution. And it will do so in ways that are most harmful to the least advantaged.

In organizations nominally devoted to some purpose other than profit — be they police departments, colleges, or anything else — there is always some tension between the organization’s stated mission and the need to generate enough revenue to survive and thrive. For colleges, sometimes this means kowtowing to wealthy donors. Sometimes it means doing defense research when that’s where the money is. But when things are going well, this is done in a way that’s reasonably compatible with the underlying institutional mission. One hopes that the Ford Foundation funds counterbalance the Koch money, or that the defense dollars are mostly going to basic science and not to killing people. And there is a line — blurry, moving, and contested, but definitely there — that one does not cross.

When resources grow tight, though, there is more and more pressure to find money where you can. In Ferguson, this is a story about expanding law enforcement solely to increase revenue, creating new fees for every encounter with the legal system, and preventing defendants from receiving a fair hearing if doing so would risk “any decrease in our Fines and Forfeitures” (p. 15).

In higher ed, this is about coming to see students as cash flows. It starts in service of the larger mission. Enrollment management evens out the bottom line. Tuition discounting allows more low-income students to be admitted.

But as budgets tighten, the compromises begin. The proportion of out-of-state students grows, because they pay for the in-state students. The recruitment of international students begins, not for any educational purpose but because they pay full freight.

And it continues from there. Master’s programs proliferate, to be paid for with large and easily acquired student loans, in the absence of any evidence of their benefits for students. Online education is promoted, without regard to its pedagogical quality, because it is expected to be cheaper.

At the most predatory end, this becomes the for-profit sector. Marketing expenditures are greater than instructional expenditures, and colleges “manage” student loan default rates (through the use of forbearances, for example) to avoid losing eligibility for federal aid. From a Senate report:

In order to achieve company enrollment goals, recruiting managers at some companies created a boiler-room atmosphere, in which hitting an enrollment quota was the recruiters’ highest priority. Recruiters who failed to bring in enough students were put through disciplinary processes and sometimes terminated.

Not so far off from the DOJ’s statement that the Ferguson PD

sent a potent message to officers that their violations of law and policy will be tolerated, provided that officers continue to be ‘productive’ in making arrests and writing citations. Where officers fail to meet productivity goals, supervisors have been instructed to alter officer assignments or impose discipline.

Maybe it seems like this is just a problem of for-profits, and that universities, for all their flaws, would never stoop to such practices. But don’t forget that colleges only stopped directing students to private lenders that paid them a cut of the loan because Andrew Cuomo, as attorney general of New York, launched an investigation against them. And the tighter times are, the more temptation there is going to be to sell out students. “Enrollment management” comes to mean “enroll as many warm bodies as possible and milk them for all they’re worth.”

Just as in Ferguson, it is the least advantaged who are hit the hardest by such tactics: students from low-income families, disproportionately Black and Hispanic; first-generation students whose families don’t have the information to steer them away from a lousy financial decision. And just as in Ferguson, the burden of a one-time mistake — a brake light left unreplaced, a misguided loan for a five-week enrollment in college — can compound dramatically: not bankruptable, and not subject to forgiveness, a private student loan is with you for life.

There are limits to this analogy. Colleges don’t compel anyone to enroll, and they can’t throw you in jail for not paying your student loans. And while the student-as-revenue-stream model compounds racial disadvantage, race plays a different and perhaps more fundamental role in the Ferguson story.

The underlying similarity is real, though. And it’s not just police departments and higher ed that run this risk. So does medicine: these stories bear more than a passing resemblance to Atul Gawande’s description of McAllen, Texas, where doctors had come to see patients as revenue streams.

Is this trend inevitable in a world of tightening budgets? I don’t think it has to be. Sometimes the bad incentives can be curbed through laws or changes in funding patterns. Other times a change in organizational culture may be required. Not all police departments are Ferguson; not all colleges are Corinthian. Diagnosing the common problem, though, is critical if we want to make Ferguson and Corinthian the exception, and not the rule.


Written by epopp

March 23, 2015 at 12:16 pm

One Response

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  1. I believe this revenue generation model used in Ferguson is used nationwide. If New York didn’t want its cigarette tax money, for instance, they would have never created the legal conditions under which it was okay to interfere with somebody allegedly selling loose cigarettes on the street. I have heard an interview before with a police officer (I think he was from Alabama), who actually got fired trying to stop this nonsense- he was saying there was some sort of quota of how many people he had to stop- they wouldn’t tell him directly what is was, but he and his fellow officers would keep getting into trouble until they reached a certain number. They couldn’t do any of the more traditional ‘protect and serve’ stuff, but had to keep pulling people over and try to find folks who they could arrest or ticket. Obviously they target people lower on the socioeconomic scale. They aren’t going to pull over lawyers.

    This is the folly of modern governance- and the folly of protesters who say stuff like ‘black lives matter!’ It is a true statement, but the sort of statement that the people who predate upon all of us use as an excuse to exist. A new parasite, perhaps one with different skin color, will inhabit the same parasitic structure that exists in Ferguson, and things will continue on as before, unless people figure out what good governance looks like.

    A similar process needs to happen with education, but I think there it will be more cataclysmic for academia- people can learn from home perfectly well already; there is only this inertia of government funded schooling and its attendant regulation holding things up. This bubble is going to burst.



    March 23, 2015 at 1:45 pm

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