In this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama will once again argue that higher education is, as he put it in a preview video, “the key to success for our kids in the 21st century.” To increase access, he has proposed to make community college free for two years for students who are “willing to work for it” by maintaining a 2.5 GPA and attending school at least half time. Along with helping “our kids” go to college, he notes, the program would give adults “the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.” The concept is modeled on the Tennessee Promise, which is in turn based on a tnAchieves, a private scholarship program that supported almost 12,000 students in its first six years and led to a dramatic increase in the number of degrees awarded at participating schools.
Obama’s proposal recognizes two realities: that money is a barrier to entry into higher education and that community colleges play an important role in helping poor and working-class people prepare for jobs that require specialized training. Reducing the cost of going to community college and encouraging students to enroll in programs that lead to better jobs can move some people from precarity to stability.
Not surprisingly, critics pounced on the plan. Some argued that community colleges have a poor track record on graduation rates and on successful transfer to four-year schools. Such claims assume that low graduation rates reflect institutional failure, not the challenges and complexities of students’ lives – including working enough hours to pay tuition. Community colleges could do a better job of helping students graduate, perhaps by decreasing faculty teaching loads so they could give more attention to individual students. That’s hard to do if you’re teaching five or six courses a semester. Mentoring programs also help. Part of why tnAchieves succeeded is that along with free tuition it provided one-on-one mentoring and required students to engage in community service.
But to argue that getting more people into community college is a bad idea because too few of them will complete a degree assumes that graduation is the only thing that matters. Is having a degree better than not having it? Almost certainly, but having some college education is also better than having none, especially if students can get the education without going into debt. If a free tuition program brought more students into community colleges without setting them back financially, that would be a gain for those students even if many of them never graduated. College is not only about gaining a credential, after all. It’s about learning, and students can and do learn even when they don’t finish a degree.
Arguments about graduation rates also rely on data about completion of Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees, but community colleges also offer certificates in a wide range of technical areas, providing targeting training for real jobs. For many students, such targeted programs offer the best opportunity for improving their employment and earnings opportunities, and if students could access these programs for free, rather than being lured into over-priced and often under-performing for-profit schools, fewer would fall into the financial trap of student loan debt. Of course, the threat to the for-profit sector is one reason some conservatives reject the proposal: as Forbes magazine warned, the proposal would “move us toward a public monopoly.”
Some critics have suggested that making community college free will attract middle-class students who could afford to pay tuition. As a Washington Post editorial asked, “If additional money can be found for education, why not direct it to those who face the highest barriers?” That’s a legitimate concern, though education commentator Richard Kahlenberg argues that bringing more socioeconomic diversity into community colleges represents a socioeconomic version of Brown vs. Board of Education for higher education. It could reduce the “separate but unequal” class segregation of higher education, in which poorer students attend community colleges and better off students go directly to four-year schools. He also suggests that bringing more middle-class students into community colleges would give those schools more political capital, since “programs for poor people tend to be poorly funded. And as the community-college student population has grown poorer, so has the ability to garner adequate educational resources.”
The debate continues, both in support and opposition, but most commentaries ignore two key problems. First, as Jack Metzgar and I have written here several times, while higher education usually does improve the economic opportunities for working-class individuals, it’s an inherently individual fix that ignores the larger problems that drive economic inequality: low wages for the majority of jobs, which require little or no education, and declining wages for almost everyone, including college grads. A College Board report touting the economic benefits of higher education includes a chart showing that for most workers, regardless of their education, wages have declined in real dollars since 1971. In a few categories – women with Bachelor’s degrees and men with advanced degrees – wages in 2011 are about what they were in 1971. Everyone else has seen a drop, including about a $10,000 fall for men with four-year degrees. So while Obama, the College Board, and others are right that people improve their earning potential by getting a degree, such aspirational rhetoric too often distracts us from the larger and more challenging discussion of how to ensure that all workers earn a decent wage.
The other problem is simpler and more significant: the proposal will probably never become policy. It will cost an estimated $60 billion over ten years, and one-fourth of funds must come from the states. Neither the current Congress nor state legislatures will allocate that kind of money to higher education. According to the American Council on Education, state funding of higher education declining, and if the trend they traced starting in 1980 continues, “average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059.” So much for making college free, or even affordable.
Despite all of this, I’m heartened by the debate over Obama’s proposal, because it’s doing exactly one thing that Kahlenberg suggests is needed: bringing fresh attention to the sector of higher education that serves the most working-class students. Some of that attention is critical, but the discussion raises important questions about the purposes of education, the interests and needs of poor and working-class students, and the challenges and potential of our working-class colleges.