Thursday, May 26, 2016

Enlisting Allies

The great thing about panel discussions is that they sometimes veer in unanticipated directions.  That happened at the New America panel on college affordability on Wednesday.

I was there along with Rachel Fishman, from New America; Barbara Gault, from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research; and Jee Hang Lee, from the Association of Community College Trustees.  Scott Carlson, from the Chronicle, was the moderator.  

The focus of the discussion was “More Than Tuition,” or what goes into a true total cost of attendance for students at public colleges.  

It’s a complicated issue that matters narrowly for financial aid purposes, and broadly for improving student success.  

Cost of attendance varies greatly for reasons having little to do with colleges themselves.  Transportation costs, for instance, can vary based on the availability of public transportation, as well as the life needs of the students who might take it.  (As Barbara Gault pointed out, if you have to drop off or pick up the kids at daycare on the way to and from class, the bus often isn’t a realistic option.)  Without some guidelines, colleges can manipulate the numbers to achieve various other goals, whether increasing students’ access to loans or trying to make themselves look unrealistically affordable.

The discussion started going in the direction of identifying unmet needs and lamenting the lack of funding to address them.  It’s valid -- necessary, really -- but well-worn, and it can lead to fatalism, whether sympathetic or dismissive.

But then the conversation changed, and the energy in the room changed.

American politics being what they are, programs for the poor become poor programs.  But programs with universal appeal are protected.  That’s why welfare was easy to gut, but Social Security is sacred.  

Given their mission, can community colleges move into the Social Security category?

I’m thinking that conscious efforts to get the entire community -- including those who have plenty of other options -- to see community colleges as relevant to them could pay off.

That could take the form of active efforts to engage local retirees.  Senior citizens generally vote at higher rates than traditional-age undergrads.  They usually have more resources, and they’re often well-connected in the community.  In some areas, they’re also a rapidly growing demographic, and that’s likelier to become more true as the Boomers get older.  Institutions they tend to support tend to be well-supported.  And they bring experience that can be an asset in itself, whether in the form of mentoring students, advising programs, or just enhancing class discussions.

It could also take the form of dual enrollment programs.  Alpha parents in striving districts often harbor suspicions about the actual applicability to college of IB and AP.  Dual enrollment courses offer actual, transcripted credits.  And they get around the lack of snob appeal of community college if they’re done in high school.

Solid Honors programs, built to transfer to prestigious places, offer a no-apologies alternative for parents of high achievers.  They also offer the best shot at upward mobility for the bright student of limited means.

The key here is in recognizing that community colleges best serve struggling students when they’re well-funded, and their funding occurs in a political context.  To the extent that people of influence and affluence see community colleges as social welfare agencies, they’ll treat them accordingly.  To the extent they see community colleges as exciting and important, they’ll fund them accordingly.  And those funds will benefit those who most need it.

It would be lovely if appeals to “need” were enough, but the track record of that strategy is clear.  It’s time to try something different.  

I didn’t realize the panel would go in that direction, but I was glad it did.  Thanks to New America for the opportunity.