Sunday, March 19, 2017

When Experience Matters

Arkansas’ version of a Promise program for free community college looks like something written by someone who has never worked at a community college.  It’s obviously well-intended, and it could do some good in some cases.  It’s close enough to a good idea to be really frustrating.  But it gets a few basics badly wrong.

First, the upsides.  Free community college generally is an excellent way to raise the educational level of a community or state.  If it’s run on a “last dollar” basis, as the Arkansas program is, it’s surprisingly cheap.  (“Last dollar” means that it covers the gap between already-existing financial aid programs, such as Pell grants, and actual need.  That means the state isn’t leaving Federal money on the table.)  It includes a community service requirement, which many find appealing and which may contribute to its political sustainability.  To the extent that the program can raise the overall educational level of Arkansans, the state stands to benefit in a wide range of ways.

But it has some restrictions that suggest that nobody on a campus was consulted.  Or if they were, they weren’t heard.

The first, and less objectionable, flaw is that it only applies to certain majors.  The state picked STEM and a few other high-demand fields as winners; if you want to use community college as the first two years of a liberal arts transfer degree, you’re out of luck.  The idea is to play off the stereotype of English majors working at Starbucks.

The stereotype is largely without merit, but never mind that.  The real issue here, as anyone who works on a campus can tell you, is that students change majors all the time.  It’s not uncommon for a student who thinks she’s pre-med to switch to something else when she hits the wall in Anatomy and Physiology or Organic Chem.  And that’s assuming they even make it that far.  What happens to the grant if a student starts out as, say, a biology major, but then switches to business?  That could easily happen.  A student who shows up with some remediation needs may just take some gen eds early on, declaring a funded major, then change her mind after a semester or two.

For that matter, what about students who drop out or transfer?  Do they have to give the money back?  Given that dropouts are often motivated by economic considerations, that would amount to kicking people when they’re down.  

The second, and more fundamental, objection is that it requires recipients to remain in Arkansas, working full-time, for at least three years after graduation.  The idea, I assume, is to ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth.

Nothing against Arkansas in particular, but forbidding students to transfer out of state (or to take jobs out of state) really reduces the economic payoff of a degree.  When capital is mobile but labor isn’t, wages decline.  That’s just math.  Yes, the vast majority of community college students remain in the state from which they graduated, but that’s because they choose to.  Forcing them to, on penalty of having to return all that tuition after the fact, is essentially punishing students for living where they do.  

It also makes the grant look an awful lot like a loan.  If it’s a loan -- and the fact that “forgiveness” is conditional strongly suggests that it is -- then I would think that balances forgiven would be considered taxable income.  That could come as a rude shock to students whose loans are forgiven after three years.  Remember that tuition you thought was behind you?  Surprise!

The IHE article didn’t specify, but what about students who transfer for a bachelor’s?  Given that many of the highest-paying jobs require a bachelor’s or higher, I consider transfer to be a part of workforce development.  (“Transfer IS Workforce” is one of those ideas that practitioners know intuitively, but people outside the industry often miss.) But if the program requires three years of full-time work after graduating with an associate’s, then any transfer would have to wait.  Especially in technical fields, that’s self-defeating.  

And then there are recessions.  Yes, the job market right now is relatively strong, but we know that these things come in cycles.  When the next recession hits, some graduates presumably will be unable to find full-time work.  To then punish those grads by calling in the loans would, again, be kicking them when they’re down.  Not cool.

The restrictions smack of people far removed from academia holding it in distrust.  They’re trying to control the outcomes by putting multiple conditions on it that sound common-sensical unless you actually know what you’re doing.  If Arkansas really wants to reap the benefits of free community college -- and it should! -- I’d recommend looking no farther than Tennessee.  Tennessee doesn’t try to dictate majors, and it doesn’t force students into a kind of indentured servitude.  It assumes, correctly, that education can lead to opportunities all over the place.  By refusing to cut down the future to the size of the present, it makes its program much more attractive and -- judging by enrollment numbers -- highly effective.  The model is there for the taking.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Arkansas -- after all, it’s not like New Jersey has tried even that much.  The basic impulse is there, and it’s good.  But if they don’t pay attention to reality on the ground, they’ll be disappointed in the outcome.  And a few years from now, when those tax bills come due, I’d expect they’ll start hearing from some pretty angry graduates.