Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Big Sort and Local Control

As longtime readers know, I was impressed by Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort when it came out a few years ago.  It argues empirically that the United States is sorting itself geographically according to political and lifestyle preferences to a much greater degree than it had been in the postwar era.  According to Bishop, counties now are far more likely to be solidly blue or red than they are to be purple, even within states they don’t match.  For example, my own Monmouth County is red, even though New Jersey is blue.  Austin is blue, even though Texas is red.  And the distinctions are growing.

Richard Florida has a new piece arguing that the polarization is intensifying.  From a quick glance, his diagnosis looks right.  

(Obligatory poli sci note: don’t just look at presidential votes.  In a year like this one, they can mislead.  Look at local representation.)

Community colleges are in an awkward spot as political polarization writes itself onto the landscape.  They were (mostly) built in a different era, when one-party counties or districts were far less common.  Nearly half of the community colleges in the country were established during the ten years between the early 60’s and the early 70’s (including my own).  They were part of a larger social justice movement -- hence the open admissions -- but they were also politically ambiguous and inconspicuous enough that they flew under the political radar for a long time.

As politics have become more polarized, though, the radar has become more sensitive.  It’s harder to stay above or out of the fray.  

With political polarization -- some of us suspect, driving it -- is economic polarization.  The economy has changed in fundamental ways since the era in which community colleges were born.  The economy doesn’t produce as many middle-class jobs as it once did, which makes our mission trickier.  Community colleges are built to create and sustain a middle class.  But that presumes an economy that does the same.

To the extent that counties or districts are becoming more distinct from each other, the demands being placed on a sector that assumed one economy are becoming more disparate.  For example, the growth in jobs that require bachelor’s degrees or higher suddenly erases the distinction between ‘transfer’ and ‘workforce’ degrees.  Is an associate’s in teacher education transfer or workforce?  Well, yes.  On the other side, some jobs that require post-secondary training pay barely above the minimum wage.

I was struck, at the Aspen gathering, by the chasm between people who worked in unionized settings and people who don’t.  Local economies were strikingly different, too, and becoming more so.  But the temptation to customize can inadvertently cut down students’ future opportunities to the size of the present.  

The Big Sort and local/community control don’t go together easily.  But it’s where we are, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.  The trick is not to let local conditions override those universal educational needs on which community colleges were founded.