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Summer Blog Series: Visions of Throughput, or, the Equity Factory

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Part 1

Equity and Efficiency

By Terry Mulcaire

Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley’s “Vision for Success” for California Community Colleges represents the most dramatic reform to the CCC system since the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education. To the Master Plan’s emphasis on open access, the Vision adds an ambitious focus on two new goals: achieving equity in completion rates for students from historically underrepresented groups and increasing the efficiency of the CCC system’s production of completions—degrees, certificates, etransfers, and specific, high-demand job skills. This conceptual coupling of equity and efficiency is the Vision’s core premise. It frames inequity in terms of inefficiency and it offers efficiency as the means to achieve equity.

But the Vision never defends or even inquires into this premise. The authors simply assume that the economic means of efficiency will achieve the political end of equity, and everything in the Vision follows from this. And so this assumption deserves critical scrutiny. In making it, the authors of the Vision, without acknowledging it, draw on core tenets of neoliberal ideology: that the public sector should model itself on the private sector, and so that political and social goods are best pursued by applying the economic laws, so-called, of the competitive marketplace. If we want equity, we should seek to produce it as if it were a good being produced for the market: with maximal efficiency, and the highest possible return on investment.

Thus the Vision’s presentation of the original problems it seeks to reform links inequity to inefficiency. The authors cite relatively low completion rates “among African-American students (36 percent), American Indian/Alaskan students (38 percent), Hispanic students (41 percent), and Pacific Islander students (43 percent)” and contrast these to “stronger completion rates of Asian students (65 percent), Filipino students (57 percent) and White students (54 percent).” They go on to claim that these completion rate inequities also measure troubling “inefficiencies,” which “drive up costs for both the students and California taxpayers.” According to Thomas Bailey, Shanna Jaggers, and Davis Jenkins, authors of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges (2015), a highly influential pro-reform study cited by the Chancellor’s Office as a guidebook, such low completion rates show that community colleges have been “making poor use of taxpayer dollars”(6), and failing to “maximize returns on [taxpayer] investment” (198). Bailey, Jaggers, and Jenkins propose that efficiency represents the road to equity, and set forth a blueprint for achieving equitable rates of completion across the board using greater efficiencies in the production of completions, or a “lower…cost per completion” (178), not just for students from historically underrepresented groups, but for all community college students.

If we inquire into the Vision’s assumptions about equity and efficiency, and about the relationship between economic means and political ends, problems arise immediately. The conceptual coupling of equity and efficiency leads us to the odd conclusion that the political inequities borne by students from historically underrepresented groups can be measured by the relatively high cost per completion for students from those groups. And this leads to the even odder solution set forth by Jaggers et al, which is, in the name of equity, to cut the “cost per completion,” or to lower state spending per completion, for individual students from those groups, along with all other students.  Equity here does not mean that the state will now devote to the completions of African-American or Hispanic students the same or equal amount of resources that it has been devoting to the completions of White and Asian students; instead, it means that the new lower more “efficient” amount of resources that the Vision is offering to students from historically underrepresented groups will be equivalent to that of students from every other group, whose completions will similarly be produced at a lower average unit cost.

After 30 years of increasing income inequality nationally—a period in which neoliberal economic ideology has dominated debates over public budgets—the authors of the Vision simply assume that what was not too expensive for white majority students in the past is now too expensive for all students equally, and on the basis of that assumption they declare that cutting spending per outcome across the board represents the path to political equity. This conceptual binding of equity to efficiency preemptively closes down any space for political arguments that achieving equity might be worth spending more per student outcome, at least for students from these groups. In 1960, when the Master Plan offered enrollment in the Community Colleges to “any student capable of benefiting from instruction,” efficiency was not on the radar. The state’s political commitment to that goal was necessarily financially open-ended. The taxpayers wrote a blank check to back it up.

Thus the Vision implicitly rejects the Master Plan’s open-ended funding commitments as inefficient—implicitly, without ever openly defending the neoliberal assumptions that the value of public goods must be measured in quasi-industrial terms, by low cost per unit of production, and that the political interests of taxpayers are adequately described in terms of an investor’s jealous regard for return on his dollar—implicitly, without ever acknowledging that the Master Plan nowhere considers efficient completion to be a goal, or that taxpayers might view public higher education through a lens other than that of private capital investment—as taxpayers so clearly did in regard to white students in the 1960s and ensuing decades.

The Vision’s critique of the system under the Master Plan relies on a stealthy redefinition by which the public college becomes a factory, but run according to private sector values of efficiency and return on investment. Stated openly, it takes the form of a non sequitur: “In offering the public good of access to higher education,” so imply the authors, in effect, “the community college has failed to perform as an efficient factory in producing equitable completions.”

 Throughput

The Vision may be more accurately described as a project of industrial engineering, “redesigning” the school into a factory committed to efficient productivity, or “throughput.” In his Pulitzer-Prize winning 1977 study of the rise of the profession of industrial engineering, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Alfred Chandler seized on the importance of the concept of throughput for late 19th-century factory managers. The term describes the rate at which materials move through the production system; the great goal of the factory manager in that era was to increase rates of throughput without increasing unit costs of production, resulting in a more efficient factory, a lower cost per unit of production, and a product whose market price was more competitive.

Remarkably, proponents of the Vision have explicitly and enthusiastically embraced the concept of throughput as a description of their goal. The most influential of these proponents are the faculty members of the California Acceleration Project (CAP) founded by Katie Hearn and Myra Snell in 2010, with the goals of raising completion rates and achieving equity for students who had placed into pre-transfer developmental classes in Math and English. CAP observed that in colleges with long, multi-semester developmental pathways leading to transfer-level courses, many students exited the pathway at the end of each term, producing a high attrition rate throughout the pathway. They also noted that most of the students lost to attrition were from historically underrepresented groups. Hearn and Snell, with support from the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and other pro-reform non-profits, tried shortening, or “accelerating” pathways and found that doing so increased throughput rates. Anticipating the fundamental logic of the Chancellor’s Vision, they concluded that they had found the stone that would kill two birds at the same time: shortening pathways increased throughput rates, and increasing throughput rates, so they claimed, represented the achievement of equity.

In discovering and celebrating the transformational power of increasing throughput rates, CAP was rediscovering a foundational principle of industrial engineering.  Urging CC teachers to stop thinking of pedagogy in terms of the background, talents, and skills of individual teachers, and instead to think in terms of large institutional structures and systems, Hearn and Snell echo the famous dictum of Frederick Winslow Taylor, a founding father of the discipline of industrial engineering, who proclaimed in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) that “In the past the man has been first; in the future, the system must be first.” And as Chandler points out, a key goal of reconceptualizing the factory floor as a single system overseen by managing engineers such as Taylor was to increase efficiency or to maximize throughput rates while lowering unit costs. The Twitter hashtag of some CAP proponents states it plainly and pithily: “#maximizethroughput.”

Recognizing the industrial character of CAP’s commitment to throughput brings into sharp relief the new inequities that system would entail. It repeats the larger non sequitur of the Vision: we are going to redress the educational inequities you have experienced by re-engineering the college into an efficiently productive factory for equivalent outcomes. The claim that a college can be treated as substantively identical to an efficient factory is only one in a long list of similarly problematic assertions.

“The educational experience in the CC system of students from historically underrepresented groups is inequitable” is assumed to be substantively identical to “Students from historically underrepresented groups have inefficiently low throughput rates.” On that basis, “We will achieve educational equity for those students” is assumed to be identical to “We will raise throughput rates for those students.”  More broadly, political and educational problems are assumed to be identical to engineering problems, and specifically, problems of inefficiency. Engineering solutions to problems of efficiency, therefore, represent the solution to those political and educational problems. Educational quality is therefore identical to the efficiency of an educational system in producing equal quantities of outputs. You’ll know that you’re teaching well when your throughput rates go up.

Check back next week for Part 2: Why mass-Producing Equity Doesn’t Work