Sunday, May 17, 2015

Common Ground in a Polarizing Country

Community colleges are some of the only places in America in which people from different classes and races routinely come together as equals.  I sometimes wonder if that’s part of what makes it so difficult for them to get funding.

Most community colleges have “catchment areas” or “districts” that encompass entire counties or sets of counties.  (The Community College of Rhode Island encompasses an entire state.) Most counties have relatively affluent parts, and less affluent parts.  In parts of the country with relatively robust four-year sectors, community colleges tend to draw disproportionately from the less affluent parts.  The exception proves the rule: the Dakotas have the highest community college graduation rates in the country because in many parts of the Dakotas, the community college is the only post-secondary option within driving distance, so it draws students who would have gone directly to a four-year school elsewhere.  That’s much less true in, say, Massachusetts.  Any national “performance funding” model that fails to account for such regional differences is fundamentally flawed.

Most K-12 districts, by contrast, are intensely local.  Their boundaries are much smaller.  For example, New Jersey has 21 counties and 19 community colleges, but 591 active school districts.  At that level of local specificity, the connection between local identity -- or, more coldly, local property values -- and the quality of the school district is tight and visible.  (If you don’t believe me, ask any Realtor.)  When tiny towns are packed tightly next to each other, and property values vary dramatically between them, schools are often part of the reason.

That tight connection between local school quality and local property values provides a strong component of direct self-interest in supporting, or at least tolerating, relatively high K-12 funding.  

It’s much harder to make that kind of connection between local property values and the caliber of the local community college.  That’s in part because the impact of the community college is spread across many towns, including towns that separated from each other for reasons of race and class.  Real estate listings commonly indicate school districts, but almost never indicate community college boundaries.  

It’s possible to take these observations in several different political directions.  The economist William Fischel made the argument ten years ago in The Homevoter Hypothesis that the tight connection between property values and school quality was actually to the benefit of most schools, so we should be wary of attempts to regionalize or equalize support across towns, for fear of losing what political support existed for public funding.  From a very different political perspective, Jamelle Bouie pointed out in Slate this week -- and Ta-Nehisi Coates argued at much greater length in the Atlantic last year -- that it’s difficult to talk intelligently about property wealth and local boundaries without seriously discussing the impact of racism in the formation of both family wealth and local housing policies.  Whether you want to call it “localism” or “segregation” largely depends on where you start.

And that’s where community colleges are both wonderful and struggling.  They’re wonderful in that they’re resolutely egalitarian.  They offer second chances to people who need them, and they keep prices low to ensure that everyone who wants to attend, can.  Now they’re focusing more on completion, which can have the welcome effect of reducing achievement gaps across racial and economic lines.  Community colleges reach across those municipal boundaries, bringing together the students that entire local governments exist to keep apart.  

Community colleges are struggling in that culturally, they’re swimming upstream.  They don’t have the cachet of exclusive universities or the direct connection to property values of K-12 schools.  They assume the relevance and desirability of a larger community, in a larger culture that defaults to polarization and isolation.  They try to produce a middle class for a country that’s expanding at the extremes and shrinking in the middle.  That’s a tall order.

It’s also why I like working in them.  In their sometimes-unglamorous ways, they enact a democratic faith that it’s possible to respect, and empower, everybody.  Some people are not on board with that, for all sorts of reasons, but it’s a mission well worth supporting.  We just need to find more effective ways to communicate the value of that mission to people who calculate value in very different ways.