Friday, January 09, 2015

Obama and Two Free Years of College

I thought it was clever to release some short teasers in relation to the upcoming State of the Union address. The first is apparently a proposal to give two free years of community college to all Americans who are willing to work for it.

1. My first thought of course was, "Not going to happen." Even if they liked it, where would Congress find the money for a project like this one?

My second thought was, "Clever, knowing that Congress will never go for something like this. It sets up the next Democratic candidate for President as a potential selling or "get out the vote" point.

My third thought was, "It's probably a bad idea when you get into the implications."

2. For one thing, for something like this really to pay off, whoever the planners were (and that in itself is a major problem--no one, Republican or Democrat--ever agrees on what the outcomes of education are really supposed to be) would need to be very specific about what these two years of education were supposed to achieve. That is to say, what are the outcomes America is looking for with these two years.

A good basic education, with courses like writing and psychology, certainly adds value to any person. Basic math skills, a sense of history--all good stuff for anyone to have rattling around in their heads. Basically, we're looking to give the least educated segment of the American population what they should have received in high school but didn't because they dropped out. That would be a good thing, if they would go for it.

Of course many adjuncts at community colleges are not as high up on the academic totem pole as those who teach at a private or more public institution (you usually get what you pay for). So we're talking about adding value in some cases, rather than a state of the art education, IMO. Nevertheless, community colleges are a good thing and serve a wide range of people (of all capacities). And I want to be clear that I believe there are gems of teachers at community colleges who give more value than Harvard.

3. But, money changes things. If community colleges were suddenly where the money was, then the quality of teachers at community colleges would improve over time.

But more questionable is the fact that this would effectively kill large numbers of private colleges, unless they could get in on the dough as well. I can see "school voucher" programs develop so that private schools could get this money too.

Private colleges are already endangered because of community schools. I wouldn't be surprised if some schools in the near future go to a two-tier tuition rate, one of which applies to general education courses and another of which applies to major classes. So you would take psychology online for a price comparable to Ivy Tech but you would then pay a higher tuition (with smaller classes) to take a course like Anatomy and Physiology.

Bottom line: This proposal would create immense and I think ultimately very unhealthy upheaval in American higher education, with harmful unintended consequences.

4. What I would support are free vocational training and placement programs that could be associated with community colleges. In order to receive welfare, you would have to enroll in these programs, successfully graduate from them, and then take a placement in an appropriate workplace.

Indeed, I would be delighted to see grocery stores and work places develop, whose main source of income is money redirected from current welfare programs into a channel of help that requires training and work to receive.

Like Obama's proposal, I doubt this idea will ever see the light of day...

No comments: