The OC Reg’s Gary Robbins reports that readers “reacted strongly” to the recent LAO report that said “that lawmakers could roughly triple student fees at California community colleges without causing major hardship or a big drop in enrollment.” Robbins rewrote some reader comments as questions, which he gave to Judy Iannaccone, communications director for the Rancho Santiago Community College District. Naturally, she takes the position that fee increases would cause massive enrollment drops.
I’m especially interested in one question and answer:
Q: The California Community College (CCC) system says that a fee hike could result in a very large drop in enrollment. The CCC says this happened earlier this decade, when fees were increased. The Legislative Analyst’s Office seems to disagree, saying in its report: “Our analysis suggests that this claim about fees being the sole or even the major cause of enrollment declines is exaggerated. In fact, there are several explanations for the enrollment declines.” What’s true?
A: When enrollment fees rose from $11 to $26 between 2003 and 2005, student fee increases and uncertain community college budgets triggered a decline in enrollment of more than 300,000 students statewide. Unemployment was not pervasive at that time. With families and individuals facing very difficult economic times today, a steep increase of community college enrollment fees would likely lead to a significant drop in college enrollment. Students would simply not be able to shoulder the increased economic burden.
Now, I don’t claim to know the truth of the matter—whether there are grounds for supposing that a large fee increase would lead to a sharp drop in enrollment. One thing, however, is clear: from the fact that, several years ago, when fees increased, enrollments dropped dramatically it does not follow that the fee increase caused the enrollment drop. Logicians call this kind of fallacious reasoning “post hoc ergo propter hoc”—“after this therefore because of this.” The point is that the mere temporal pattern (first event A, then event B) does not by itself establish that A caused B (just as correlations between facts [vegetarianism, better health] does not by itself establish a causal connection.)
When this kind of temporal pattern occurs (A, then B), we need to consider all possible explanations of B, one of them being that A (the initial event) caused B (the subsequent event). The LAO seems to be saying that, when we consider all of the relevant facts (surrounding the enrollment decline of 2003-2005), the “fees increase caused drop in enrollments” (FICDE) explanation is not particularly good compared to alternatives.
It is not entirely clear that Ms. Iannaccone understands the nature of the LAO’s reasoning, for, to counter it, she must show that the FICDE explanation is best among alternatives, and I don’t see that she has done that.
She does note that there is an important difference between 2003-2005 and the present. There is another factor that affects enrollments, and it is rates of unemployment. Unlike the period earlier in this decade, today, “unemployment is pervasive.”
It does seem reasonable to view much greater unemployment as a cause of some decrease in enrollments. But it doesn’t entirely answer the LAO’s point, which, in essence, is that several other factors, besides fee increases (etc.), can cause enrollment declines.
I’ll try to dig up the factors they are referring to.
UPDATE: I've gotta run, but I did dig up those "factors":
The LAO report, dated June 10, is entitled California Community Colleges: Raising Fees Could Mitigate Program Cuts and Leverage More Federal Aid.
Here are some excerpts that provide the alternative explanations of the enrollment decrease that occurred between 2003 and 2005:
Crackdown on Concurrent Enrollment. Much of the decline in enrollment from 2003–04 to 2004–05 was an intended result of statutory and budget changes to address systemic abuses involving concurrent enrollment….
Reduced Course Offerings. In a 2005 report to the Legislature on enrollment changes at CCC, the Chancellor’s Office suggested that an unknown amount of the enrollment decline can be explained by districts having reduced the number of course offerings. This reduction was in response to concerns by districts about possible cuts to the CCC system budget during this period….
Impact of Fees on Nonneedy Students. Although all financially needy students are eligible to receive a fee waiver and CCC fees remained the lowest in the country, it is likely that some students chose not to enroll in a community college as a result of the higher fees imposed in 2003–04 and 2004–05. As we discussed in our 2006–07 Analysis of the Budget Bill (page E–252), however, data collected by the Chancellor’s Office in 2005 and 2006 revealed no disproportionate effect on students from low–income areas or historically underrepresented racial groups….
In summary, a combination of factors likely contributed to earlier CCC enrollment declines, with fee increases having an unknown effect. Similar to that period, however, it is likely that this year some fee–paying students who would have attended when fees were $20 per unit would choose not to enroll when fees are higher (even if they qualified for a full or partial reimbursement from the federal government). Because these students by definition are not financially needy, their decision not to enroll should not be considered a denial of access, but rather a choice they made about the benefit they would have received from a CCC course.