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.

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