Sunday, January 11, 2015


Following Up on Free Community College

Last week, I offered a quick first response to President Obama’s suggestion of making community college free.  Having had a few more days to think about it, and having seen the academic Twitterverse explode, I have a few more suggestions for points to consider:

Assessing Adults: Although most “free community college” proposals assume that you’re dealing with eighteen or nineteen year olds, the median age of community college students nationally is in the mid-twenties.  It’s not unusual for adults to show up with a grab-bag of credits and some uncredited competencies they’ve picked up along the way.  A free community college program should include robust mechanisms for assessing prior learning.  Giving credit where it’s due is a sign of respect for the student, and it speeds the path to completion, which is no small thing if you’re working and supporting a child or two.  Right now, financial aid does not cover fees for assessing prior learning.  It should.

Local Funding: The Obama proposal seems to assume that funding is mostly either from states or from students.  That’s true in my own state, but in many states, localities have a significant role.  Even “localities” are defined differently:some states use counties, some use “districts,” akin to school districts.  In New Jersey, for example, local funding comes from county governments; in Michigan, it comes from millages charged on property taxes and voted on by referendum.  Requiring states to hit certain minimum levels of funding is a fantastic idea from a campus perspective, but it raises difficult questions about local control in states where that’s valued.  How do you compel a referendum to reach a given result?

Federalism: In my book, I refer at one point to federal financial aid as the new state aid.  The Obama proposal doubles down on that.  Over time, of course, he who pays the piper calls the tune.  If the Feds become more clearly the major funders, I’d expect to see them start to exercise more control.  That could be good, bad, or mixed -- and honestly, they already exert quite a bit through existing financial aid regs -- but I could imagine some tensions.

Four-Year Publics: If I worked at a Compass Direction State, I’d be concerned.  If community colleges start to siphon off significant numbers of prospective freshmen and sophomores, that would have impacts on enrollment and finances at four-year colleges  They would have to get clearer about the value proposition they offer students, which is not a bad thing.  On the other hand, the four-year publics would have much more incentive to be receptive to transfer students, who in turn would save significant amounts of student loan debt.  The savvier four-year publics could turn this into a positive, though not without a bumpy transitional period.

Four-Year Privates: The elites, and those with clear niches, should be fine.  The relatively unselective ones without a clear niche should be sweating bullets.

For-Profits: On the face of it, this would seem to be a frontal assault on the for-profits, and I”m sure some folks there have been popping Tums by the handful for the last few days.  But many students who choose them do so for reasons other than cost.  My guess is that the sector shakeout will continue for a bit, but this won’t be a stake in the heart.  

Performance: If community college becomes free, I could see contradictory pressures on “performance” as measured in graduation and transfer rates.  On the one hand, lowering the barrier to entry even more could lead to greater “churn,” as students are able to move in and out as needed.  As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, we should see that as a feature, not a bug, but our current performance measures would register that as system failure.  (In this context, Obama’s repeated references to “responsible students” were a bit grating.) On the other hand, if moving from means-tested aid to universal entitlement brings more middle-class students, who have had stronger academic preparation, the numbers could jump.  They’d also bring some political protection, since universal programs are harder to attack than programs aimed specifically at the poor.  In any event, a dramatic shift in the nature of the beast would require a serious rethinking of how we measure performance.

Politics and Cost Controls: I’d be concerned that the next time a recession hits, or a fresh wave of fiscal conservatism takes over, that community colleges would be left exposed.  The plan asks that the Feds cover 75 percent of tuition and fees.  (In MA, fees are much higher than tuition, but that’s another post.)  It would be easy to imagine that quickly becoming a form of price control.  “We’ll give you x, so x must be 75 percent of tuition.”  Community colleges survived the trend of state disinvestment partly through austerity -- the trend towards adjuncts, administrative streamlining, and the like -- and partly through tuition/fee increases.  Take the latter off the table, and the next round of fiscal conservatism could be devastating.

Definitions: What does “two years” mean?  If it means calendar years, even starting in September, then most students won’t finish.  If it means credits, then developmental credits raise a question, and we may inadvertently stop the progress towards competency-based degrees.  Alternately, what does “community college” mean in states where “state colleges” grant both AA and BA degrees?  (Florida, I’m looking at youuu…)  For that matter, what about non-credit workforce training?  For many adults, that’s a more appealing option.  It would be a shame to see that get shunted aside for the sake of easy definitions.

The Faculty Role: Here I’m looking at both the trend towards adjunct faculty and the impact on shared governance.  If community colleges have to scale up quickly, but the resources don’t scale up like they should, then this could actually accelerate the trend towards reliance on adjunct faculty.  In governance terms, a stronger federal role could reduce state and campus autonomy, thereby reducing the sphere in which traditional shared governance has influence. (The political theorist in me feels compelled to point out that you could also read federal involvement as an expansion of shared governance to include sharing with a larger public; in poli sci, we call that “socializing the conflict.”  But that’s not how most academics use the term.) I’d expect to see more severe pressures on shared governance in the non-elite private four-year sector, where economic exigency may become much more acute.

Politics, Part Deux: Anything is possible, of course, but I’d be surprised to see anything like the current proposal actually pass in this session of Congress.  The partisan divide is just too great, and the issue would be too easy to put on a back burner.  I just don’t see Mitch McConnell supporting it.  That said, sometimes audacious proposals have to sink in for a while before they take on a sense of inevitability.  The student loan crisis isn’t going away, and the need for higher education is greater than it has ever been.  The very short term prospects are discouraging, but I’ve seen other progressive causes -- same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, even a form of national health insurance -- go from ‘fringe’ to ‘difficult’ to ‘enacted.’  It can happen.  It may not happen this year, but good ideas have a way of taking on lives of their own.

The Message: “Free’ is a magic word.  Even if the proposal doesn’t pass, just getting the word out there about Pell grants and the true, after-aid cost of community colleges may plant the seed for some people that “I can do this.”  If so, I see that as entirely to the good.

FInally, I have to tip my cap to Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, whose F2CO proposal apparently had a major influence on the proposal.  Whether the idea passes in its current form or not, I’m excited to finally see the discussion shift in a positive direction.  This is the kind of debate we ought to be having.

A totally different issue, but what is the logic for making student loans not dischargeable through bankruptcy?
In Illinois, we have had a few state colleges that were upper-class-only for various periods of time. Governor State U is one of them (though it is now 4-year I think). An abundance of transfer students could allow this model to work; diminished numbers of Freshmen and Sophomores be compensated for by increased numbers of Juniors and Seniors, after a period of adjustment. Another good feature: fewer 18-year olds being exposed to toxic dorm life and binge drinking,
I want to extend the more reliance on adjuncts concern. I see two issues that could come of this.

I agree that the 4-years needing to demonstrate their relative value to compete for students is a good thing. But a concern that I have is that those entering freshmen, for better or for worse, are often the bread and butter that keep these schools going.

If students end up being siphoned off, then I see departments at the 4-years shrinking substantially over time. This means fewer jobs that have any research component in them, and not everyone goes into graduate school because they want to teach. Obviously, the 4-yrs are moving toward a lot of adjuncts anyway, but imagine if their student base dropped substantially virtually overnight.

The decrease in these positions could also lead to a decrease in the amount of original research done as universities hire fewer TT people and increase teaching loads. (On the upside, I suppose maybe there'd be fewer people competing for NSF/NIH/NEA and funding rates might go up?).

I don't mean all doom and gloom. I think free college is a fantastic idea. I just wonder what would happen at the 4-years that we're not considering.
@anonymous 3:22

A few decades ago, I was chatting with a newly minted history professor, who told me of a couple who, upon finishing their medical and grad school studies, declared bankruptcy and shed their entire student loan debt. She seemed to think their strategy was brilliant.

"If that becomes routine," I said, "no one will ever lend money to students again."

"Oh. Right." she said.

Making student loan debt non-dischargeable was preferred to eliminating students loans altogether, which were the only two sustainable choices.

For an argument that Republicans should jump on Obama's proposal, including some possible unintended consequences, see this:

Very nice analysis, DD.
I taught t a regional campus of a state university system (Indiana University Northwest). When Indiana decided to upgrade IVTC (Indiana Vocational Technical College) to a JC (in the early 2000s)--and to hold tuition unchanged for (as I recall) 5 years at about 1/3 of what the state universities were charging...well, it was a shock. (There's an Ivy Tech campus about a mile down the street from Indiana University Northwest). Our first-time admits dropped by about 20% the first year.

Oddly, that was a temporary effect, although the Great Recession had an impact. By 2010, the first-time admits who actually showed up were at an all-time high, and the campus went over 6,000 students (abut 4,200 FTEs) for the first time ever.

But the immediate effect was huge, especially in departments (math & English) which depended on a lot of developmental course work to keep their faculty fully employed...a lot of part-timers lost their jobs, and even a few f-t lecturer positions went away for a few years.
It's never been particularly easy to shed student loan debt. I'd have to say "pics or it didn't happen" to Dantes.

The issue is that student loan debt should be dischargeable under certain circumstances -- if you're formally found disabled by SS, for example. Then you can't use the education you just spent all that money to acquire.

In general, of course, the issue with student loans is simply their massiveness. The other problems, such as the stupidity of running through banks instead of directly, are extant, but the sheer scale of the issue is such that it is the primary concern.

I'm also a little baffled by taking this seriously. This is a throwaway line. There is no way a Congress that puts Ted Cruz in charge of NASA ponies up for additional funds for education.

@Anonymous 6:08AM

There has been a long history of smaller "directional state" or "university of ... AT city" schools having the goal of becoming large research universities, right down to the major football program. I even know of one that started as a 2-year "normal" college and was exclusively a college of education into the 1950s; it is now a research university that is well on its way to having a medical school.

Mission creep.

That is the reason you find "4 year" universities that dream of the same, seeking a way to cut teaching effort and increase research effort until they can get the external funds to keep the enterprise going. And, yes, this proposal could hurt them.

It won't hurt the universities with the sort of amenities alluded to in the hysterical screed written by The Hater (in the article cited by Edmund Dantes). They will still draw plenty of freshmen who want to go to football games. They will do just fine.

And so will community college faculty, who already often make more than the poor folks doing both a high load of teaching and publish or perish research at Middling State. More money goes to teaching when you don't have to feed the bureaucrats needed to run research projects.
Back when my parents went to uni, it was free tuition and you got a (small) living grant.

Not everyone got in — you had to pass your A-levels, in a time when most took O-levels.

You could get a decent job (even in still-rationed Britain) without a degree.
Punditus, I do not personally know anyone who has shed student loan debt in bankruptcy. The conversation really happened, but it was close to 40 years ago, I can't verify the accuracy of what I was told. The bankruptcy code has been changed many times since then, and generally not to make it easier for debtors.

The point of my comment is the economic logic behind treating student loan debt differently from other debts in bankruptcy.
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