The dean at Pioneer Valley Community thinks about the administrative implications, at least one of which is of particular importance at the land grants and mid-majors.
If I worked at a Compass Direction State, I’d be concerned. If community colleges start to siphon off significant numbers of prospective freshmen and sophomores, that would have impacts on enrollment and finances at four-year colleges. They would have to get clearer about the value proposition they offer students, which is not a bad thing. On the other hand, the four-year publics would have much more incentive to be receptive to transfer students, who in turn would save significant amounts of student loan debt. The savvier four-year publics could turn this into a positive, though not without a bumpy transitional period.It's not easy. Articulation agreements, which are de rigueur in Illinois, make transferring from community colleges to the state universities simpler, and lead to efforts to create themed course clusters, or themed floors on residence halls, or perhaps to provide big time sports in a way that the community colleges don't. (Northern Illinois have such an event coming up on 19 September.)
What students have to do to be eligible for the tuition subsidy is likely to be contested.
If community college becomes free, I could see contradictory pressures on “performance” as measured in graduation and transfer rates. On the one hand, lowering the barrier to entry even more could lead to greater “churn,” as students are able to move in and out as needed. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, we should see that as a feature, not a bug, but our current performance measures would register that as system failure. (In this context, Obama’s repeated references to “responsible students” were a bit grating.) On the other hand, if moving from means-tested aid to universal entitlement brings more middle-class students, who have had stronger academic preparation, the numbers could jump. They’d also bring some political protection, since universal programs are harder to attack than programs aimed specifically at the poor. In any event, a dramatic shift in the nature of the beast would require a serious rethinking of how we measure performance.The government cuts the checks, but individual professors will have to deal with the special pleading by students who think of themselves as responsible, and yet are not making the grades to keep the government subsidy coming. Megan McArdle extends.
I suspect that this plan will mostly help subsidize people who could have afforded tuition on their own, while encouraging marginally attached students to stay enrolled. It's not the worst way to spend government money, but in a world of limited resources, it's probably not the way I'd choose to spend that money.Particularly in a world where developing the life-management skills of the middle class is optional.
If you graduated high school without mastering basic math and reading, and can't complete the remedial courses offered by your community college, what are the odds that you are going to earn a valuable degree? Why are we so obsessed with pushing that group further into the higher education system, rather than asking if we aren't putting too much emphasis on getting a degree?Not good at high-concept academic stuff, good at something useful, and dependable: fine. Not good at anything and irresponsible to boot: time for a reality check. Perhaps, as Tyler Cowen puts it, "Overall my take is that the significant gains are to be had at the family level and at the primary education level, and that the price of community college is not a major bottleneck under the status quo." Indeed. By the time the Distressed Material has been socially-promoted out of high school, it's not the tuition that is a barrier to completion. "Educational folly," suggests Neal McCluskey.
Asking that question usually raises accusations of elitism, of dividing society into the worthy few and the many Morlocks who aren't good enough for college. I would argue instead that what's elitist is our current fixation on college. It starts from the supposition that being good at school is some sort of great personal virtue, so that any suggestion that many people aren't good at school must mean that those people are not equal and valuable members of society. And that supposition is triple-distilled balderdash.
Of course, one of the biggest problems in higher ed is that for so much of it, someone other than the student is paying the bill, tamping down students’ incentives to seriously consider whether they should go to college and what they should study if they do. This proposal would only exacerbate that problem, essentially encouraging people to spend two years in community college fully on the taxpayer dime while they dabble in things they may or may not want to do—and as they maintain a pretty low 2.5 GPA—then maybe focusing a little more when the two years is up and they have to pay something themselves.Or, after those two years, blaming The System or elitist professors or The Rules or any other convenient object of abuse for their failure. Cue Michael Filozov.
If community college becomes “free,” it will attract even more unserious students than the ones already enrolled in community colleges. Anecdotally, I’d say that about half the students in community colleges are not ready for college-level work. (I worked at one community college in which the department that offered the most course sections of any department on campus was the remedial education department.) Many students enroll in community colleges simply because they were handed a high-school diploma based on grade inflation and social promotion and have no clue what to do next.It's a blessing to have a prosperous enough society in which young people can spend some time figuring out what to do next, but the access-assessment-remediation-retention model of higher education stacked on top of the lax K-12 system contributes to depriving young people of the framework from which to commence figuring.