The community college challenge

I support President Obama’s proposal to make community college tuition free for those students who stay on track academically. Expanding education opportunity and outcomes is an essential component of raising the standard of living of all Americans.

That said taking tuition off the table as an obstacle, is not nearly enough to dramatically change the college completion rate. Which is what matters for both individuals and the country.

Three New York Times articles/columns provide a good overview on the topic. All are worth checking out.

In an article entitled “The Roots of Obama’s Ambitious College Plan”, David Leonhardt lays out the case for the President’s proposal. Based largely on the findings of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz in their book “The Race Between Education and Technology.” (Its a must-read book for anyone interested in how economies grow.)

What Goldin and Katz clearly demonstrate is that the 20th Century was America’s century primarily because we were the most educated nation on the planet. And that we are struggling now because we are no longer the most educated nation.

Leonhardt writes: “However important these details may be, it’s also worth acknowledging the potential impact of the plan — which is huge. Battles over health care, immigration, gun control and other issues may attract more attention. But both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy. (Emphasis added.)

Eduardo Porter in a Times article entitled “The Promise and Failure of Community Colleges” makes clear that more than tuition free is needed to raise college attainment rates. Porter writes:

... The first is that they (community colleges) could be the nation’s most powerful tools to improve the opportunities of less privileged Americans, giving them a shot at harnessing a fast-changing job market and building a more equitable, inclusive society for all of us. The second is that, at this job, they have largely failed.

Whether his (Obama’s) plan ultimately delivers on its promise, however, will depend less on how many students enter than how many successfully navigate their way out. Today, only 35 percent of a given entry cohort attain a degree within six years, according to government statistics … And it’s getting worse. Community college graduation rates have been declining over the last decade.

Porter is right. College completion is what matters and community colleges do not have a good track record of graduating their students. Tuition free helps, but unless colleges change the way they support their students it will not change the graduation rate much.

David Brooks in a Times column entitled “Support Our Students” proposes an alternative to the President’s tuition free plan. He agrees that community college graduation is important both for the students and country. But thinks there is a better way to spend the billions proposed by the President.

He writes: We’ve had two generations of human capital policies. Human Capital 1.0 was designed to give people access to schools and other facilities. It was based on the 1970s liberal orthodoxy that poor people just need more money, that the government could write checks and mobility will improve.

Human Capital 2.0 is designed to help people not just enroll but to complete school and thrive. Its based on a much more sophisticated understanding of how people actually live, on the importance of social capital, on the difficulty of living in disorganized circumstances. The new research emphasizes noncognitive skills — motivation, grit and attachment — and how to use policy levers to boost these things.

Rather than free tuition he would provide funding for low income students for: living expenses (textbooks, housing, transportation, etc.); guidance counselors and mentors; child care; and fixing what he calls the remedial education mess.

Its clear that unless community colleges deal with the issues raised by Porter and Brooks the promise of the President’s proposal will be largely unrealized. Its time we make college completion the priority at our community colleges.


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