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Should We Provide Community College for All?

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In this post, Jack Schneider and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville continue their conversation, shifting their focus to President Obama's proposal for free universal access to community college.

Reville: President Obama recently sent shock waves through the world of education by suggesting that the federal government ought to make community college free for all students. I think that in the information age, the President has sent just the right message: some post-secondary education is going to be essential for virtually all of our students if they are to succeed financially and if the economy is to prosper. We currently have an entitlement to free K-12 education, and the President seeks to extend this entitlement to include community college, effectively creating a K-14 entitlement. I think this is a powerfully important message.

As with any policy proposal in our complex, intergovernmental system, the success of the proposal in achieving its intent will depend on the details of policy and implementation. There are many details yet to be worked out in this sweeping proposal. For example, the proposal focuses on tuition relief, making tuition free for students who enroll at least half time and maintain a 2.5 grade point average. Yet Pell grants already cover the tuition costs for most low-income students whose real financial challenges typically come in meeting their non-tuition costs like housing, health care, transportation, child care and other living needs. How will the proposal affect these expenses? Can Pell grants be repurposed to cover some of these costs?

The proposal's political future is far from certain. It calls on the states to subsidize 25% of the cost of making tuition free while federal funding will cover the other 75%. Many state politicians have reservations about picking up this tab as their states face a variety of economic challenges. However, this kind of federal assistance is needed precisely because states in general have been steadily reducing their commitment to higher education and shifting the burden of meeting rising costs directly on to students and their families.

There is a lot to like about this proposal. It seeks to set a new standard for educational attainment in this country. It includes non-traditional students (a major share of community current community college students) and certificate programs (which offer clear pathways to lucrative employment). It pushes states to do a better job of advising and supporting students and aligning their K-12 systems with college curricula. And it promises to bring more economic diversity to the student population on community college campuses.

The President's proposal to make community college "free and universal" follows on the heels of states like Tennessee and cities like Chicago enacting similar policies with positive effect.  We will now have a robust and long overdue, national conversation on how to provide a 21st century education, one that includes two years of post-secondary education, to all of our students.  This is a good start.

Schneider: You make a number of good points here. The cost issue is a big one, particularly for low-income students. Low-income students tend to be scared off by the sticker price of college, even if their actual tuition rates would be much lower. They are more averse to the perceived financial risk of student loans. And the opportunity cost of not working is much harder on them. As a result of all this, highly qualified low-income students are only two-thirds as likely as their more affluent peers to attend a four-year institution.

The cost issue is exacerbated by decreasing state support for higher education. The University of Michigan, for instance, receives less than ten percent of its funding from the state. The rest it gets from tuition dollars. What we're seeing, nationally, is the privatization of public universities. And that's going to disproportionately hurt lower-income families.

So extending public education to grade 14 seems to make a lot of sense.

Yet there are some very clear limitations to this proposal.

The first is that two years of free community college may not translate into greater attainment of four-year degrees. Community colleges already struggle, in many cases, to meet the demand for courses that will help students transfer to four-year schools. So what's going to happen when even more students come pouring through their doors? And what is going to keep students from succumbing to the pressure of earning an income? I worry that if we don't shore up community college programs, which have in many cases been neglected over the past several decades, we'll only further over-burden those institutions by directing more students to them. Additionally, I worry that the president's plan doesn't address the issue of opportunity costthe income students are giving up by not working—meaning that we'll see the same number of students beginning, but never finishing two-year degrees.

Another big limitation here is the fact that we are assuming a lot about what is learned in post-secondary education. Absolutely, those who possess two-year degrees earn more than those who don't. And those who possess four-year degrees earn more than those who stopped after two years. But that isn't necessarily because they know more. Plenty of college graduates have no real work-ready skills. 

And finally, I worry about the importance of status in higher education. In the late nineteenth century, possession of a high school diploma was a major accomplishment. When the masses began completing high school in the mid-twentieth century, a college degree became the mark of distinction. In short, higher education has a very powerful signaling effect that may have more to do with limited access to the credential than anything else. If everyone gets a two-, or even four-year degree, the new standard will be graduate school. There is always a way for the privileged to separate themselves, at least when it comes to credentials.

Reville: I'm not convinced that the holy grail in education has to be the four-year degree. As you suggest, many such graduates have limited skills and disappointing employment prospects. I think we've made a mistake in equating equity with BA degrees. My colleagues at Harvard who did the "Pathways to Prosperity" report found that 27% of those with post-secondary licenses or certificatesbut who have credentials short of an associate's degreeactually earn more than the average recipient of a four-year degree. In the face of this kind of data, what is equity? Is it matching educational attainment? Or is it maximizing earning power?

When I was Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, we had many mid-skill level jobs that were well-paying but going unfilled because we didn't have people with the equivalent of an associate's degree ready to take these jobs. At the same time, we had plenty of people unemployed or under-employed. Instead of insisting that everyone push on to a four-year degree, we should promote alternative pathways, which begin with post-secondary education, preferably the associate's degree.  

Schneider: I agree that the four-year path doesn't have to be the only one. I would note, however, that many of the upsides of the president's proposal are those which promise to help more highly-qualified low-income students earn a four-year degree. And I would also point out that if we want students to acquire skills in community college programs, and not just credentials—which I see as an unwinnable game—then we need to talk seriously about investing in two-year schools. We need to make a commitment to technical training that rivals countries like Germany, where graduates of such programs come out ready for highly-skilled work.

As a final thought, I would add that the potential economic returns of a proposal like this shouldn't be the only way we evaluate it. Should we be preparing people for gainful employment? Sure. But we should also be preparing Americans for lives of inquiry and reflection. We shouldn't forget that a big part of going to college has nothing to do with acquiring job skills—it's about expanding the way young people see the world and understand their place in it.

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