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

Equity and Efficiency

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.”


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.

In May 2018, the California legislature, under pressure from Governor Brown and Chancellor Oakley, rushed a performance-based funding scheme into law that dedicates a portion of CCC funding to rewarding or punishing community colleges for their success, or failure, respectively, in meeting throughput targets. As one defender of such funding schemes put it, “The theory of action behind performance funding is simple: financial incentives shape behaviors.” Here the incentivized behavior is the one Chandler describes: raising throughput rates while at the same time lowering cost per unit completion. But if one declines to assume that factories and colleges are interchangeable, one immediately worries that faculty and staff are being incentivized to inflate grades and corrode educational standards. As Nicholas Hillman argues in “Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn’t Work,” other perverse and unintended incentives may follow.

The extrinsic incentives of performance-based funding, for example, may erode the intrinsic motivations of teachers and students both. It’s difficult to see how there would not be all sorts of bad ethical and educational consequences to shaping the behavior of students so that they approach their education as something best got over with as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Hillman points out that the ideological drive to remake public sector agencies along the lines of efficient, highly rationalized private sector industries is not a new one; neoliberalism is a recent iteration of older laissez-faire ideology. In fact, the effort is old enough to have been thoroughly studied and studies have established its basic conceptual problem. Hillman summarizes, “Using outcomes as a management tool is difficult because public services are delivered through complex organizations where tasks are not routine and are inherently difficult to define and measure” (emphasis in original). Hillman cites the example of installing windshields in cars as a case where extrinsic financial incentives are likely to work—to succeed in raising throughput rates—and notes that this is because the task is routine, uniform and predictable, and under the sole control of the installer. In contrast, extrinsic funding has failed to work, for example, in fire departments, for the simple reason that none of these conditions apply to fires.

Each fire is unique, and so is each college student.

It is perhaps a testimony to the normative status of neoliberal ideology that the authors of the Vision, the faculty members of CAP, and the members of the California state Legislature, have lost sight of this basic human truth. What may explain this myopia, and what distinguishes neoliberalism from earlier versions of laissez-faire ideology, is neoliberalism’s dazzling promise that all sorts of desirable political and public goods can follow on from maximizing return on investment. Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s former firm, advertises its “Double Impact Fund” not just as a way to achieve attractive returns on investment, but as an instrument of “meaningful, measurable social and environmental change.” Here Bain couples redress of climate change to return on investment, the same move that the authors of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges make in coupling redress of inequity to maximizing returns on taxpayer investment. And we find this same application of private sector means and values to the pursuit of public goods in CAP’s claim that the collective shared goal of community college faculty is to maximize throughput rates, and so achieve equity, by making the community college into what Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation, describes as a “more efficient engine for human capital development.”

Capital growth as a metaphor for human growth pervades the English and American literary traditions, as 40 years of steeping myself in those traditions has taught me well. In the age of neoliberalism, that complex metaphor has decayed into a simplistic and rigid ideological axiom. We are to believe that, “maximizing return on investment,” in an educational system whose core economic value is efficiency is the best means of achieving human educational growth. The authors and promoters of the Vision understand, presumably, that treating education literally as a capital investment means reconceptualizing the faculty as line workers in a factory, the measure of whose work is increased throughput; also presumably, they don’t necessarily want the faculty to take that lesson. We need to take the lesson.

I don’t claim to know whether the authors and promoters of the Vision themselves understand that their vision reconceptualizes students as industrial raw material to be processed as quickly and cheaply as possible into products for the job market. But this stingy and dehumanizing vision of education is not how California taxpayers understood the education of its majority white students in the heyday of the Master Plan. What was not too expensive for students then may be assumed to be too expensive for students now; on the basis of that assumption, political justice may now be offered up as a factory good produced with maximal efficiency, at minimal cost, and maximal return on investment—these are ways of saying that we continue to live under the dominion of neoliberal ideology.

The faculty need to call out that dominion and speak the plain truth. Justice does not and will not ever come in the form of a mass-produced factory product. Numerical equivalency in outcomes produced quickly and on the cheap is not the same thing as meaningful educational equity. The problem of equity is a hard political problem, not an easy engineering problem. The Chancellor may get his numerical equivalency in outcomes, but that will likely do as much to achieve genuine equity as Bain Capital’s flourishing “Double Impact Fund” will do to slow the steady cooking of global civilization. We need to do better. Cutting the ideological ties binding political equity to economic efficiency and opening a legitimate political debate over what real equity looks like, and how much it’s worth to us, would be a good start.

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