I’ve read lately that President Obama is thinking about a program to make two years of community college free to all students. On the surface, this seems like a great idea. Statistics show that more and more jobs require at least a 2-year degree. Cost is one of the deterrents to people going to school. Well, if we make school free, more people will go. And if more people get degrees, more of them will get better-paying jobs. Hard to argue against that logic.
Until you consider reality.
My business background taught me enough times that “bad inputs” are really hard to make into “good outputs”. If the apples are not ripe, it is hard to make good apple pie. If the steel has impurities and weaknesses, it won’t make for a sturdy structure. If you have warped wood, it is not easy to make a nice table out of it. You have to start with good things coming into the system.
The “inputs” (students) are quite often not ready for post high school work. That is where I am afraid we have not focused on the right thing with this community college idea. My teaching experience was that students who are hungry generally are not going to do well day-to-day in class. Same thing if the students are tired. If there is little support to get ready for college at a younger age – the study habits, the desire to do well in every class (rather than saying “I am terrible at science”), the support for completing homework, asking for help, preparing for entrance exams, taking the tougher classes – the chance of success is minimal.
So we can offer free two years of college to everyone. But if they are not ready socially, it won’t work most of the time.
Another challenge is those students are not ready for college academically. Too many people need remedial classes. A remedial class is one that is below college-level that are taken by college students. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 50% of community college students take remedial courses. They take the classes, may or may not be able to use scholarship money, but do not get college credit. The same site notes: “Less than 25 percent of remedial students at community colleges earn a certificate or degree within eight years”. We can send people to community college for free, but if they are not academically ready, is it right?
Another challenge is career choice. Too many people do not know what career they might want to pursue. They have not been exposed to a lot of different careers. They do not know the costs and benefits of a different careers. We can send them to school but if they don’t know what they want to do with their degree or certification, what is the use?
I witnessed while teaching another real challenge in providing free education. Today Ohio provides free post-high school education for any high school student – they can take college classes now. It seems great, Until you think about the motivations of all parties. In reality, the incentive for the community classes is to have more people take as many classes as possible. Students x classes = Revenue. What is the best way to “game” that formula? Make sure people pass classes. I have witnessed a community college providing easy classes that do not challenge students or give them the required knowledge. Why would a community college do that? If you have a class that is easy, word gets out. More students (who are trying to get a degree) will take that “easier” class. The community college gets paid no matter what. Students happy. College happy. The outcome is a student who is graduated. But the outcome is not a student who has learned what is necessary to succeed at work. Maybe this is situation that is not widespread, but I have witnessed it.
Providing an economical college education to more students is a really complicated subject. But it seems to me that the money would be better invested in programs to help students and families prepare for school. Career planning classes. Strategies to be successful in school. Matching classes and majors to what is needed in the real world (more of this is happening now). Closer ties between business, communities and schools (also happening). More innovation in the delivery of remedial courses at the community college level.
But tossing a bunch more students into the current system? Not sure I support that.