Friday, August 27, 2004

The Libertarian Ethic & Night Class

As readers here at the blog may be aware, I am a fulltime student at Bethany College where my semester typically involves a 19 or 20-hour course load. Since Bethany is a more academically challenging environment than many schools, the college does not allow students to take more than 21 hours for any reason. In order to circumvent that rule, each semester I take one night class at Northern Community College (which occupies the old B&O Railroad Headquarters Building in Wheeling; and which is an impressive structure architecturally, by the way). This is the way I’ve been able to do many of my intro-level required courses on the cheap, while reserving my expensive private school tuition dollars for more substantive classes. But this story is really about the community college, not me.

Northern has exhibited a wonderful example of the consumer market dictating the behavior of producers (we’ll ignore for the moment that Northern is a public, government subsidized school). Community colleges generally appeal to the nontraditional student, many of whom have fulltime jobs, families, and other responsibilities in addition to that of their educations. Students coming back to finish educations abandoned years ago, and single moms or divorcees who find the sudden need to train for a career are perhaps the most common examples of the community college clientele. This unique spectrum of consumers is what we might call the night class crowd.

The biggest problem for these busy folks is often physically getting to class. Having to work an extra shift, finding a babysitter, kids with homework, PTA meetings, and a myriad of other concerns often prevent folks in the work-a-day world from being able to attend class faithfully. Hence these nontraditional students often perform much poorer than their traditional counterparts, despite the fact that they often work as hard outside of the classroom as anyone else. As a new parent, I certainly understand that sometimes you just can’t get away from the house. Even though nothing is actually required of you per say other than your presence, you can’t just go off and leave the kids alone. In other words, you may well have time to read, work, and write – just not get to class.

At Northern, they realized that the only way to continue to attract students was to remedy this problem. Now night class students have a choice: they can do the traditional class thing with lectures, class attendance, and the rest. Or they can opt for various self-directed study options where they pace themselves outside of the classroom, doing the work and reading on their own, and only have to come in periodically to take tests. To further provide flexibility, there is a test-taking time block worked into each class (at the instructor’s discretion, usually the last 30 minutes or so) giving you up to 3 or 4 weeks from which to choose the time you wish to take your test.

How is this a market triumph? Well first, there is consumer demand. Colleges provide an educational product: in this case a degree program or professional certification. Consumers have certain expectations and demands, which Northern has had to meet in order to attract additional customers (students) in what is a heavily-colleged enironment (we have more than 10 colleges, universities, technical or vocational schools in a small, economically depressed, mostly suburban/rural area. Northern has to compete against the programs of all those other colleges, Bethany being just one of them (though admittedly Bethany reaches a more niche-oriented market). Also with the advent and proliferation of internet classes that cater to busy peoples’ lifestyles, there is additional market pressure to get the product in line with market expectations. Partly as a result of meeting this market demand, Northern has seen record enrollment for the last several semesters, even as enrollment at traditional colleges and universities nationwide has slumped. In other words, the consumer has responded to a flexible product that suits their needs.

Clearly, public schools are in many ways not the best model to show the market at work, because we know that government funding creates a distortion in the market. But to the extent that individual schools act as a more or less free agent within the market, and to the further extent that the school is letting the market dictate its policy, I think that we can afford to learn something from its example, even if we have to attend night class to do it. Perhaps we can think of it as one of Mr. Mill’s libertarian baby steps.

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