Transport specialists probably have a nicer term for this, but “induced non-demand” at least gets to the point.

In college, I frequently took the Amtrak train from Albany (the closest station to Williamstown) to Rochester and vice versa. This was how I could visit family during breaks, since I didn’t have a car.

Getting from Albany to Rochester was generally poor. I remember the trains leaving Albany in the late afternoon, and if I was really lucky I could sometimes take a bus from Williamstown to Albany and then take a semi-legal cab from the bus depot at the station. But the reverse was remarkably difficult; apparently each year the number of times per day that the train would stop would decrease. It was in the late 80’s so the details are hazy, but my general recollection was that in the end there was a choice between very late at night and very early in the morning, with nothing else. The reasoning offered by Amtrak, as far as it bothered, was that there was not enough demand to justify running more.

Any given incremental change could have been defensible, if not prudent. But the cumulative effect over time has been devastating. When the train only passes once a day at 11pm, you are effectively pushing back any passengers you might have had. Lack of supply breeds lack of demand.

This doesn’t just apply to trains, of course. A few years after college, a context long lost to history, I asked a friend who her celebrity crushes were. She said she didn’t have one. When I sounded questioning, she clarified that “if I can’t have it, I don’t want it”. I had to concede the reason for his position.

In the context of celebrity crushes, it doesn’t matter. But I see a similar dynamic with the course offerings.

With registrations declining steadily for years before the pandemic, and then declining further with the pandemic, we have had to reduce the number of sections we manage each year. With each new series of cuts, the gaps get larger. Over the years, a given class that once took place every day and night at every location may now no longer take place every night or at every location. Students who once could have created full schedules in smaller places no longer have the option.

The parallel is not perfect; online courses offer a different option than anything offered at ’80s Amtrak. (Teleportation technology remains hopelessly elusive.) But they’re a mixed blessing. They can siphon off just enough demand to make cutting more sections feel safe. But at some point you run into the problem of one train per day. Without something like a critical mass of sections, even those that should normally do well can struggle. A student who might go to one location for several classes might not care about a single one. It’s not worth it.

The root of the problem is not exactly registration; it is dependence on tuition fees. If we had the funding to run smaller sections, we would likely have healthier registrations overall. The more comprehensive list of options would allow more potential students to create schedules that would make sense to them. Smaller sections would also help faculty work more closely with students, with likely positive effects on retention and graduation rates. But when more than half of the operating budget comes from tuition and we have fewer people paying tuition and fees, we have to do what we have to do.

If the college was a for-profit business, the correct answer would likely refer to how a cookie crumbles. But community colleges are more like public transportation than restaurants. Community colleges exist not to make money for their owners, but to serve the community. And the community members they serve are often those who cannot afford more expensive options. Asking an eleemosynary institution to act as a for-profit business is a category error. A for-profit business can let down its less profitable customers. A public service exists precisely to help the less profitable people.

Applying bad logic leads to terrible dilemmas. This results in service cuts that hurt those who need it most. He asks those with the fewest options to be more flexible than everyone else. This is bad logic.

When I went to graduate school at Rutgers, I remember being quickly impressed by the frequency and congestion of the NJ Transit trains to New York. They were in stark contrast to the red-eyed Amtrak I had known. The frequency of service has become self-fulfilling, as has Amtrak’s lack of service. The trains ran often enough, and fast enough, that people could count on them.

People also rely on community colleges.

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