The Plan To Make Community College Free, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 15 2015 @ 10:18am

Popping up in the in-tray, Freddie comments on the discussion thread:

I note with a little frustration that one of your readers has endorsed the “trade school is the answer to our economic problems” meme. I don’t blame that particular reader, as it’s a very common claim. But as I noted in a piece last year, there’s essentially no credible evidence to suggest that we need to send more people to trade school. The ranks of the jobs with the highest unemployment are riddled with skilled trades, which is not surprising in the post-financial crisis world; skilled trades are massively exposed to the boom-and-bust cycle of the housing market. I’m not saying that I’m sure that more people going to trade school is a terrible idea, and like the reader I am an opponent of the “college for everyone” attitude. But it’s an idea that gets asserted as a solution a lot with a remarkable lack of compelling evidence for it.

While I agree that more education is not the solution, I differ from your reader (with his complaints of Marxist academics) in that I believe the problems with our labor market stem from very deliberate policy choices to favor the desires of a tiny percentage of the vastly rich over the needs of the great mass of working people.

Several more readers sound off at length:

Your readers who think Obama’s community college plan is a good idea would do well to read the September 2013 article from the Washington Post titled “Is Government Aid Actually Making College More Expensive?

To anyone who has studied economics, the thought immediately comes to mind. The rapid increase in tuition costs happened right when the government started spending extraordinary sums to subsidize college tuition. It seems very unlikely this is a coincidence. As with anything, there is a market price for college, and giving out money to people to be spent specifically on college allows colleges to charge more than the market price. The Post article reviews all the research on this topic. From the last paragraph of the article: “All but one study I’ve seen found some evidence of a price response to increases in aid, for some section of the higher ed market.”

Here’s a likely outcome if government starts paying for two-year community college: four-year universities will raise their prices. The reason for this is because their customers were always willing to spend a certain total amount of money on an education. If government foots the bill for the first two years, the university providing the second two years can raise its prices and find its customers still willing to attend, since they got the first two years for free.

Another illustrates a point made by Shackford that, in the reader’s words, “Obama’s proposal will incentivize community colleges to dilute their curriculum to ensure they get a steady stream of funding from the federal government”:

The proposal requires student maintain a C- average.  Instructors and teachers will be pressured to grant C’s even when students don’t deserve it or will back students who appeal their low grades. This already occurs to some extent.  The Mrs. is an adjunct at a local community college for a course program that requires students keep a C- in all classes to maintain enrollment.  Her students who have prior military service get their tuition paid by the federal government.  She has some students who are barely literate.  When they inevitably fail, they often dispute the grade and the administration always backs the student for the simple fact they want the money.

The average incoming college freshman reads at the 7th grade level because these same incentives promote grade inflation at the high school level.  School simply do not flunk and expel students because the number of students enrolled determines the funding they receive from the state and federal government.

And regarding your reader’s comparison of another to Judge Smails, a more apt movie analogy may be Ben Kingsley’s character in Searching for Bobby Fischer

Are we actually helping young adults, or society at large, just because we give students a certificate that is meaningless?  Like Josh’s Grand Master certificate in the film, a community college degree will mean nothing.

Another provides “a view from a Community College Professor”:

Many of the statements by readers reflect a lack of specific knowledge regarding community colleges, their role and their student populations.  They seem to equate some idyllic image of Harvard+Animal House with all of college; a dream world of fuzzy ideas, tweed wearing professors and Voltaire.

1. In NJ, all of our courses are legally transferable to public (and most private) schools in NJ.  The Lampitt Bill has streamlined a lot of our coursework.  Gone are the electives – there’s no time for leftist indoctrination of academians.  Also, community college is overwhelmingly taught by part-time adjuncts.  They are not researchers, writers on sabbatical and certainly not Marxist indoctrinators (BTW, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism failed, so no one indoctrinates that philosophy anymore, or ever – please take a history course at your local community college to find out how and why).

If you took a factory and transferred the model to education you would have a modern community college.  I really wish community college was that idyllic dream of high-minded liberalness the political right accuses us of but, alas, we go to work, teach our classes overfull classes, prep more classes, deal with student problems and concerns, and then grade, edit, and comment on papers and tests – all for a pay significantly less than the level of required degree would indicate. Ph.Ds are held by less than 1% of Americans yet professors earn decidedly middle American wages. I could triple my income if I went into international corporate consulting, for example.

2.  We have over 100 certificate programs, from cooking to nursing.  Our dental program is 35 years old  – and gives free cleanings to kids in the community.  The great lie of education is that the for-profit schools do this training while college does some soft liberal arts reading and thinking stuff.  In fact, we offer more programs than the three for-profit schools in our neighborhood and do it at a tenth of the cost.  (Our advertising budget though can’t compete.)  Air conditioner repair – we got it.  Computer animation – got it.  Want to build apps for a startup? We got all the hands-on coursework you need. Community colleges have filled this space for a long time – but the stigma that they are the “13th grade” looms large.  More money would mean more services, which would mean more programs, certificates and training.

3.  70% of our students are remedial.  This means they are not prepared for college-level reading, writing or math.  Reading I is a third grade reading level – and those classes are full.  So while we should spend more money on pre-K education, there is still a massive number of people failed by K-12 education.  With high-stakes testing, No Child Left Behind, and teacher pay tied to grades, these numbers have gone up.  There is less incentive to educate and more incentive to pass high-cost standardized tests.

4. Community College students are, in our case, poorer, less educated, and much more racially diverse than the surrounding schools.  Those with means and drive head off to the private schools of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.  Or they go to the public schools of Northern Jersey and Pennsylvania. We also take in a far larger number of immigrants, ESL students, first-time college families, working adults, mentally and physically handicapped, and military veterans than the surrounding colleges.  All of these students require expensive services and programs.   The idea is that we educate a large number of people who have limited choices in their education – and who are expensive to educate.

Which brings us to the most important part of the President Obama’s proposal: forcing states to pay. Our school was set up in the 1960s, and the charter indicated that for tuition, the state and the county would each contribute an equal share to operating costs (33% each).  In 2014, our budget received 12% from the county and 17% from the state meaning tuition made up 71% of our operating budget.  All the pledges of “no new taxes” is being paid for by higher tuition, fees and less services.  This budget situation is simply breaking the back of the school and the students.  We are not a school that can charge $50K for tuition nor can we pre-screen our students.  If the state just paid the amount it guaranteed in our charter, we could educate students pretty easily and cheaply.  So if the president can force states to pay their actual fair share (or more), that would be a budgetary godsend for us.