Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Tennessee, Take a Bow

Bravo to Tennessee for taking on one of the stickiest issues in the community college world.  It’s offering free tuition to adults, whether they’re new to college or returning after many years.

Adults are the majority of students at community colleges nationally, but they’re usually afterthoughts in policy discussions.  That leads to no end of misunderstandings.

Community colleges get the lion’s share of adult students for relatively obvious reasons.  If you have a job, family obligations, and local ties, you probably don’t want to live in a dorm for four years.  You need to work while you study, and you want to get through as quickly as possible.  You want low cost, workforce-relevant programs, and geographic convenience, all of which play to community colleges’ strengths.  Will Ferrell notwithstanding, I’ve never heard a 35 year old lament the absence of frats.  Adults are here to get something done.

They’re often wonderful to have in class.  They know why they’re there, they’ve got stuff to do, and they have no interest in many of the distractions that sometimes capture their younger peers.  They can bring different perspectives, too.  King Lear reads differently when you’re a parent.

But they’re a tricky market to serve.

For example, how meaningful is a math placement test for someone who has been out of school for ten years?  How meaningful is a three year graduation rate for someone who can only take one or two courses at a time?  How meaningful are financial aid calculations for someone with a job and kids?  For those who maybe struggled through high school, or who learned English entirely outside of school, the academic preparation gaps can be challenging.  Even basic academic planning is tricky when people come in with very different smatterings of credits from previous forays into college years ago.

Free tuition could be a game-changer.  

Most adults who come back for credit -- I’m not referring here to retirees auditing classes for pleasure -- are really struggling with both upfront cost and opportunity cost.  We can’t do much about the latter, but free tuition would help with the former.  (Add significant use of OER, and it’s that much better.)  Relieving some of that pressure may mean making it possible to work fewer hours for pay, or to get better and/or more reliable child care.  It may be the difference between being able to afford an abrupt car repair and having to drop out because you can’t get to school.

I’m particularly glad that Tennessee is taking the lead (though I’ll admit I’d be happier if New Jersey were…).  Tennessee is a red state with a Republican governor.  It’s showing that the economic and human logic of free college doesn’t need to be a partisan issue.  And it shouldn’t be.  If you’re a fiscal conservative, would you rather have people paying into the system, or taking payments from it?  People with marketable skills pay more into the system, and are likelier to have the resources to provide more stable home lives for their kids.  

No, free community college can’t cure the entire economy.  But it can certainly help, and it can help in ways that hold up well over time.  

Well done, Tennessee.  This blue-state blogger tips his cap.  And maybe starts making some calls...