Tuesday, April 18, 2017


As a trained political theorist, I’m inherently skeptical of anyone who loudly claims the mantle of “centrist.”  It doesn’t mean what some people take it to mean.

It’s often used to connote reasonableness, in presumed opposition to unreasonable camps on either side.  If the truth lies in the middle, then centrists must be correct, right?

Well, no.  If one side claims that the earth is flat, and another claims it’s spherical, a centrist who proudly proclaims it twisty (while heaping scorn on the other two sides) isn’t helping.  If you define yourself simply by the ritual splitting of differences, then you cede the power to control your views to the people who define the differences.  There’s no inherent integrity to the position; it’s defined entirely by what it opposes.  When one side or the other moves the goalposts, the committed centrist obediently shifts his position, proclaiming his superior wisdom and virtue while awaiting further orders..

I was reminded of that in reading “A Risky Bet,” a report by a group calling itself “Third Way.”  It’s an attack on financial aid for students of colleges with low graduation rates, wrapped in the guise of transcending political camps.  Surely, it argues, we can all agree on efficiency!

Again, no.  Efficiency doesn’t exist by itself; you can only be efficient _at_ something.  If we get the goal wrong, measuring efficiency misses the point.  In this case, the measurement error is in taking the IPEDS graduation rate for a single institution as the measure of its worth.

The prose section of the report is careful not to pick on community colleges, but if you open up the data, community colleges are heavily represented on the hit list.  That’s no coincidence.  Community colleges serve low-income students disproportionately, and receive far less per-student funding than any other sector of American higher education.  Given what we know about parental income, racism, and funding, we should expect institutional graduation rates to reflect their demographics.  Failing to correct for that is either obtuse or sinister.

But that’s only one objection.  A far more basic one stems from the yawning chasm between national average community college graduation rates -- the low twenties -- and the fact that 49 percent of bachelor’s degree grads nationally have significant community college experience.  Given that only about 45 percent of American undergrads are enrolled at community colleges, that latter number suggests remarkable success.  Controlling for budgets and demographics, it suggests sector-leading success.  

But that doesn’t fit the “efficiency” narrative.  

Contrasting this report to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “Lower Ed” really brings home the problem.  McMillan Cottom doesn’t style herself a “centrist.”  She has a point of view, and she owns it.  That point of view allows her the clarity to notice things that don’t fit cleanly into policy narratives, like the Morehouse graduate using student loans for a for-profit grad school to finance his own startup.  She points out that the real story around “Lower Ed” isn’t the supposed inefficiency of community colleges, which come off fairly well in her telling.  It’s the offloading of training costs from employers onto prospective employees, and the intersection between a sort of historical amnesia positing that as eternal and what she calls the “education gospel.”  .  

That’s not a “centrist” position.  It requires taking seriously the idea that the political economy is both complicated and chosen.  It’s the result of the accumulated sediment of political choices grounded in a culture in which race, gender, age, and income frame people’s perceived options.  Rather than a derivative centrism, it’s an observant pragmatism rooted in an ethical imperative.  If that puts her analysis closer to one political camp than to another, her work suggests, so be it.

Public education can’t be treated apolitically; it’s inherently political.  It requires a serious ongoing public discussion of priorities, resources, and the point of it all.  Community colleges, at their best, are about empowering students and communities through education and training.  Sometimes that takes the form of graduating from the college at which you started, but often, it means moving on with batches of credits and graduating elsewhere.  That’s still success.  Sometimes it means stopping out for a while, tending to the messy business of a complicated life, and then returning.  That shows up in think tank stats as institutional failure, but it shouldn’t.

Rather than using an ostensibly neutral metric to find the poor wanting and punishing them for it, let’s start a serious conversation about what a more inclusive American society would look like and work backwards from there.  It may require a bit more work, but it’s worth it.  And let’s drop the fetish of centrism in favor of something closer to independent thought.  Sometimes the truth isn’t in the middle, and there’s no shame in saying so.