THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE: Restructuring Higher Education

Career College Central Summary:

  • This is, of course, speculative – the plan is not going to be passed by this Congress, and if it were enacted it might not work as intended. I’m trying to tease out what the likely effects would be if it did work as intended – if the law passed, states eagerly signed up, and community colleges responded to incentives to restructure their programs to meet the eligibility criteria.
  • To be clear, it’s not obvious to me that a restructuring of community colleges to be more academically serious would be a bad thing, if the goal is to make higher education cheaper without sacrificing quality. But if the goal is to enable people to go to college who currently do not, I wonder whether the proposal will be that effective. Poor students, after all, are frequently attending community colleges for free now. And even if they benefit from the elimination of tuition, the eligibility criteria could inadvertently make it harder for them to remain enrolled.
  • Some folks have worried that community colleges will engage in rampant grade inflation to keep their graduation rates up (and thus remain eligible for subsidies). That could happen – but the requirement that credits be readily transferable to a four-year institution might prevent that eventuality. But another way to keep graduation rates up is to “fire” or “manage out” failing students, a process observed at many charter schools. The administration proposal includes money for remediation – but high-performing charter schools frequently do the same. Who knows where the bulk of the incentives will ultimately lie?
  • In any event, I concluded the piece with a throwaway line about the “class divide” running through the student body in higher education, and I want to complicate that view slightly. It is entirely likely that a poorer student, struggling to stay financially afloat at State U, might be better off spending two or three years at a community college and then transferring to State U. I mean that not just in financial terms but in social terms – at the community college she would be around more people like her, and when she transferred to State U she might be better prepared, socially, to handle this novel social environment. The class divide already runs through State U, and runs pretty deep.

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