Friday, November 07, 2008

Tax Credits? Hmm...

According to IHE, President-elect Obama has supported a fully refundable tax credit of $4000 for the first two years of college. Whether this (or anything akin to it) has a chance of seeing the light of day is another question, but it's a neat idea to bat around.

There's an obvious surface-level appeal for cc's, since that would cover the entire cost of tuition and fees for a full-time student for two years at most cc's. In fact, cc's with costs well below that might think about raising the tuition and fees to $4k, lest they leave money on the table. (The usual argument against significant tuition/fee hikes is 'access,' but this would make that argument largely moot.) The really savvy ones would contract with textbook-rental firms for fixed rates, which could then be included in the $4k total.

I'll admit that with the state funding crisis we're weathering now, the prospect of a large, no-strings infusion of cash is very, very attractive. No sense in denying that. And the public recognition that cc's are viable for transfer, as well as for workforce development or job retraining, is more than welcome. Let's drop the '13th grade' stigma and trumpet the fact that many of our grads go on to get advanced degrees. Yes, yes, yes.

But still...

How do we define 'the first two years of college'? What if the student attends part-time? What about remediation? How about students who did a semester after high school, dropped out, lived life for a while, and returned in their thirties? (We get a significant number of those.) What about non-degree programs? Non-accredited trade schools? Non-credit workforce development? Summer overloads? Dual enrollment in high schools?

And what about those pesky four-year schools? Wouldn't they just raise their tuition by another, say, $4k? After all, if you're already charging 50, what's 54?

If we're really serious about helping people afford colleges that are worth attending, I have a slightly different proposal. It gets around all those annoying 'definitional' issues, and it emphasizes quality as well as quantity.

Drum roll, please...


Just parity. That's all.

Make it a national policy that community colleges get the same per-student funding as four-year public colleges.

Give us the sustained, predictable, ongoing operating support, and we'll give you both access and quality. And if we don't, based on relevant measures after a decent interval, then by all means, move those resources elsewhere.

Since we don't do the lavish student centers, the over-the-top athletic programs, the climbing walls, or the various concierge services of the four-year schools, we can devote all that funding to stuff like financial aid, tutoring services, and onsite childcare. We could actually reverse the all-adjunct, all-the-time trend, and provide students with professors who actually have the time to talk to them outside of class. Hell, if we got really ambitious, maybe we could even fund some joint projects with the local high schools to try to get the high school curricula in some vague alignment with college entrance requirements in basic skills areas, like writing and math. If all goes well, in a few years we might not even need to remediate quite so much, since more students will have learned it the first time.

Making cc's both excellent and affordable would achieve far more than would allowing the Swarthmores of the world to bump up tuition another five percent.

Just a thought. And an admittedly imperfect one. But it's honestly refreshing to be able to think along these lines, rather than just “what should we cut this time?”

That's the change we need. Welcome, President Obama.