Transportation scholars may have a more elegant term for this, but “inducing non-demand” at least gets its gist.

In college, I often took the Amtrak train from Albany (the closest station to Williamstown) to Rochester and vice versa. Given that I don’t have a car, this is how I visit my family during a break.

Getting from Albany to Rochester is usually not scary. I remember that the train leaves Albany in the late afternoon. If I am really lucky, sometimes I can take a bus from Williamstown to Albany and then take a semi-legal taxi from the bus station to the train station. But the reverse is very difficult. It seems that every year, the number of train stops per day will decrease. It was in the late 1980s, so the details were very vague, but my overall impression was that in the end, I made a choice between late night and early morning, and nothing else. The reason Amtrak provided (in terms of its troubles) was that there was not enough demand to justify running more.

Any given incremental change may be reasonable, even prudent. But over time, the cumulative impact is devastating. When the train passes only once a day at 11pm, you are effectively repelling any passengers you might encounter. Insufficient supply leads to insufficient demand.

Of course, it does not only apply to trains. A few years after graduating from university, the background has long been forgotten by history. I asked a friend who she liked about celebrities. She said she didn’t. When I looked confused, she clarified: “If I can’t have it, I don’t want it.” I have to admit that her position is rational.

In the context of celebrity fascination, this is not important. But I saw similar dynamics in class.

In the years before the pandemic, enrollment has been steadily declining, and then with the pandemic, it has fallen even more, and we have to reduce the number of parts opened each year. With each new round of layoffs, the gap will get bigger and bigger. For many years, a given class that used to run at every location day and night may now not run every night or at every location. Students who were once able to build a complete timetable in a smaller location no longer have options.

Parallelism is not perfect; the options offered by online courses are different from those offered by Amtrak in the 1980s. (Transportation technologies are still frustratingly elusive.) But they are mixed. They can absorb enough demand to make cutting more parts look cautious. But at some point, you have a problem with one train a day. If there are no parts like critical mass, even those parts that usually perform well will get stuck. A student who may go to one place to take multiple courses may not bother about one. This is not worth the trouble.

The root of the problem is not entirely enrollment; it is dependent on tuition. If we have the funds to open only a smaller part, our overall enrollment rate may be healthier. More comprehensive options will enable more potential students to make timetables that are meaningful to them. The smaller part can also help professors and students work more closely, which may have a positive impact on retention and graduation rates. But when more than half of the operating budget comes from tuition and fees, and we are paying fewer and fewer people, we must do what we should do.

If the university is a for-profit company, then the correct answer may refer to the way the biscuits are broken. But community colleges are more like public transportation than restaurants. Community colleges do not exist to make money for their owners, but to serve the community. Members of the communities they serve often have no way of obtaining more expensive options. It is a category error to require an eleemosynary organization to act like a for-profit company. Profitability can abandon its least profitable customers. Public services exist precisely to help those with the lowest profits.

Applying the wrong logic can lead to terrible dilemmas. It promotes service cuts and hurts those who need it most. It requires those with the fewest choices to be more flexible than others. This is wrong logic.

When I went to graduate school at Rutgers University, I was quickly impressed by the frequency and congestion of NJ Transit’s trains to New York City. They are in stark contrast to the red-eyed Amtraks I know. The frequency of service becomes self-fulfilling, just like Amtrak’s service is scarce. Trains run frequently enough and fast enough that people rely on them.

People also count on community colleges.


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