Sunday, January 18, 2015

Why I am skeptical about tuition-free community college

President Obama’s proposal of two years of tuition-free community college comes with greater complications than brief news reports allow. One such complication: the plan would cover only coursework that provides job-training or that transfers to four-year schools. Thus the “developmental” (read: remedial) classes that begin (and end) many a community-college student’s coursework would appear not to be included.

Greater access to higher education ought to look like an unqualified good. Yet I find myself deeply skeptical about whether tuition-free community college (hereafter TFCC) will serve any purpose but greater economic and social stratification. I see in this proposal (which probably has little chance of becoming law) the same logic that underwrites MOOCs: a four-year residential experience gets reserved for a privileged few, with something else for the rest of us. A family of modest means, faced with a choice between free and far from it, would find it difficult not to choose free. It’s already well known that capable students from disadvantaged families tend to aim low and think locally when applying to colleges. TFCC would do much to encourage diminished educational choices: community college rather than, say, a four-year state school. It seems to me a higher-ed version of tracking.

And there’s good reason to wonder whether TFCC is likely to prepare students for academic success. Great things can happen at community colleges — I have taught brilliant students who studied there. But for most students who start at community colleges, the chances of moving on to a four-year degree are small. The Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College has the dispiriting numbers, with thirteen percent of community-college students earning a bachelor’s degree in five years, fifteen percent earning the degree within six.

Another problem with TFCC involves instruction. The overwhelming majority of community-college faculty are adjunct instructors being paid a pittance for their work — according to The Adjunct Project, an average of $2100 per course at public two-year schools, or $140 a week. TFCC, which allots no additional funds for instruction, would serve to further the adjunctification of teaching. A greater influx of students into community colleges would require ever more adjuncts, each with the small courseload that institutions assign to avoid having to pay into health insurance. Call it the academic version of the twenty-nine-hour week.

A bolder proposal (which would stand even less chance of passing than the Obama proposal) would offer, in the spirit of the GI Bill, free tuition for two years of coursework wherever a student chooses to go (call it TFP: tuition-free, period). TFP could be made available to students whose families earn under, say, $100,000 a year. And the dollar amount could be capped, which might encourage institutions to lower tuition. Like TFCC, TFP would do nothing to reverse higher education’s increasing reliance on adjunct instructors. But TFP would at least encourage greater choice and greatly reduce the cost of college for students at both two-year and four-year schools.¹

Bolder yet would be a revamping of K-12 education that addresses the cruel inequities of school funding. As Jonathan Kozol has often observed, there’s something deeply wrong with a culture in which the accident of one’s birth determines the quality of one’s education.² TFCC will change none of that. Those who can afford to go from high school to a four-year college will continue to do so, and everyone else will have less reason to aspire to do so.

¹ Pipedreams ought not to require details. These details are the best I can do.

² I realized only after writing that “cruel inequities” is an unconscious variation on the title of Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.

Related posts
The Adjunct Project
“A fully-realized adult person”
The gold standard, haircuts, and everyone else

[I have voted three times for Barack Obama. I have knocked on doors for him in two cities and have made substantial contributions to his presidential campaigns. But when it comes to education, I find him an utter disappointment.]

comments: 2

Daughter Number Three said...

Well said. And I second your opinion on the president's education "achievements."

Anonymous said...

One notes that many four year colleges and graduate schools are increasing their tuitions. As an example, the UC system is raising tuition 25 per cent across a number of years. Free as a political promise sounds good and makes an opposition look mean-spirited, but what does the recipient of free two year college programs do in the next years? Pay through the nose? Stop? Trade school? While I do not agree with Republicans, I find myself not agreeing with Democrats either anymore. Maybe it's time for anyone interested in learning to go sit in the local library and read, read and read.