11.2.09

PAYING FOR HIGH SCHOOL, TWICE.

A commenter asks me to square my assertions about where higher education's excess capacity is with the recession-induced increases in community college enrollments. A Brookings Institution position paper that purports to make the case for greater support for community colleges (which need not be the same thing as greater support for College Lite) states my case for me.
Faced with high tuition costs, a weak economy, and increased competition for admission to four-year colleges, students today are more likely than at any other point in history to attend one of the nation’s 1,100 community colleges. Annually, community college enrollment is increasing at more than twice the rate of that at four-year colleges, by 2.3 million students in the first half of this decade alone.
Presumably those students had the option of attending community colleges during more prosperous times. It's the recession, not some new enthusiasm for access-assessment-remediation-retention, that's shifting the demand. I therefore repeat this suggestion.
Hive off anything that hints at dumbing the programs down.
The Brookings essay puts it slightly differently.
The rise of these institutions reflects their important roles in training workers, especially first-generation college students, for well-paying, high-demand jobs and in providing students a bridge to even higher levels of education.
That's what the high schools used to do, but I want to hold that thought for now. (I've never fully grasped that first-generation notion anyway. There are plenty of first-generation collegians in the flagships and the mid-majors.)

The Brookings paper recognizes an overlap between the community colleges and the subprime sector of higher education.
We need to get more out of the system, however. Columbia University researchers estimate that the community college dropout rate is 50 percent. Despite the fact that community college degree and certificate holders earn considerably more than workers with only a high school diploma, just one-third of students who entered a community college in 1995 completed a degree of any kind by 2001. With many of the fastest-growing occupations requiring some post-secondary education, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree, serious challenges await if community college performance does not improve.
My diagnosis, from the subprime sector post:
There's excess capacity in access-assessment-remediation-retention. It makes no more sense to preserve it now than it did to preserve Chrysler in 1979.
Again, I could take up the devalued-high-schools argument ("not necessarily a bachelor's degree) but not yet.

The Brookings article points out some perversities in budgeting.
Part of the problem lies in the way we fund community colleges. Owing to their historical role in serving local labor markets, community colleges are hampered by a heavy financial dependence on states and localities, where negative budget outlooks today portend deep funding cuts. Moreover, they are funded primarily based on enrollment, without regard to whether their students earn degrees or get good jobs. This gears community colleges' incentives toward inputs and process, rather than outcomes like student success.
You get a better product when you use better inputs. Rethink open admissions.

There's also a lot of serious thinking about providing the resources, but with an important caveat at the end.
The federal government should not simply expand funding, but use these new resources explicitly to promote greater success for community college students. Colleges receiving enhanced funds would be required to track and report student results, such as completion of a minimum number of credits, earning a degree, and landing a good-paying job. Over time, a majority of federal dollars would be awarded based not on enrollment, but on colleges’ performance on these critical measures.
Why not use those performance measures for the high schools? Why not, while we're contemplating reforms, empower the community colleges to bill the high schools (it's a pet theme of mine, just keep scrolling) that systematically turn out unprepared students for doing the work the high schools failed to do?

The concluding paragraph, however, suggests that it's the failure of the high schools that is blighting peoples' lives.
Ensuring that American workers are trained to compete in the global marketplace, to earn a place in the middle class, and to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens requires expanding and improving their experience with postsecondary education. By better supporting the affordable and accessible higher educational institutions found within all of our communities, and asking more of them in exchange, we can put our nation and its families back on the path to economic prosperity.
Among the posts in the bill the high schools link is an observation on that "global marketplace" claim. It's wonkish boilerplate. (Paul Krugman told me so.) The United States's comparative advantage used to be -- maybe it still is -- in high-technology, knowledge-intensive products. I didn't see any mention of calculus, or organic chemistry, or quantum physics, or technical writing in that manifesto.

In The America That Worked(TM), the common schools understood their mission to include preparing informed citizens and inculcating the habits of the upper middle class. Yes, that America was more sanguine about young people who didn't develop those habits opting out. On the other hand, forty years of enabling fecklessness and calling it inclusion puts us in a position where a respected public policy shop is calling for federal money to make community colleges more effective at doing what the high schools used to do as a matter of course. Perhaps the liquidity constraint that is going to bite on the government will encourage policymakers to look at restoring the older order, for lack of resources.

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