Tuition-free community college, continued

oh the things you'll find when you google 'posters about education'Earlier this week I wrote on the promise, and limitations, of President Obama’s call to cover the first two years of community college tuition for all qualifying students. There are a lot of different aspects to this idea, but like education in general the way we approach ‘fixing’ what we think is wrong has a lot to do with other issues — power, poverty, federalism, privatization, etc.

Some of these themes and others are apparent in the follow-up links below, which include some direct responses to the president’s proposal and some tangential but critically relevant information.

First, Jordan Weissmann on the possible efficiency bonuses from the administration’s proposal:

But again, the Obama plan isn’t merely appealing because it might increase college access or success. It’s exciting because it could show us a way to make our entire system of higher education more efficient by forcing the federal government and states to cooperate on controlling costs and providing funding. That’s not to say there wouldn’t be challenges. […]

But compared with the dilemma of declining state funding and uncontrolled costs, drawing more kids into the community-college system isn’t such an awful problem to have. Compared with what we’ve tried already, free higher education may the elegant solution we’ve been waiting for, instead of just another kludge.

Jordan’s main appeal here is that a simple solution may work where a labyrinth of financing and submerged-state aid has not succeeded. To the extent that we make problems worse than they need to be by trying to solve them through kludgeocracy, he’s absolutely correct. But the better angle for arguing its superior efficiency is also the aspect that makes it so radical; basically, that it’s universal. Setting aside the practical political effects of buy-in from powerful interest groups, universality sheds the obstacles inherent in spending so many resources figuring out who doesn’t deserve this benefit. As an added bonus, it also removes the most perniciously punitive and paternalistic aspects of the welfare state.

Next, Matt Reed, an academic vice president at Holyoke Community College who blogs at the indispensable Inside Higher Ed comments on the politics of this proposal (emphasis mine):

Anything is possible, of course, but I’d be surprised to see anything like the current proposal actually pass in this session of Congress. The partisan divide is just too great, and the issue would be too easy to put on a back burner. I just don’t see Mitch McConnell supporting it. That said, sometimes audacious proposals have to sink in for a while before they take on a sense of inevitability. The student loan crisis isn’t going away, and the need for higher education is greater than it has ever been. The very short term prospects are discouraging, but I’ve seen other progressive causes — same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, even a form of national health insurance — go from ‘fringe’ to ‘difficult’ to ‘enacted.’ It can happen. It may not happen this year, but good ideas have a way of taking on lives of their own.

In other words sometimes you have to put the idea out there for the possibility, or inevitability, of an Overton Window shift that brings your previously laughable idea into sudden legitimacy. Again, this would have obvious lessons and implications for other, better, leftward ideas for creating a more secure life. You know, like a BIG.

It’s also worth asking, as Nick Bunkers does, whether ‘free’ community college is even a meaningful tool to fight inequality anymore, given what we think we know about the future of labor and the economy:

Research increasingly shows that boosting education levels might not live up to the hype [of reducing inequality]. […] Now this is not to say that education is irrelevant or undesirable. A more educated workforce is likely to be more productive, leading to faster economic growth. And, securing a college education has other economic and non-economic benefits. For example, a college degree may act as a shield against dropping out of the labor force as the economy becomes a “cruel game of musical chairs.” But the sad reality is that higher levels of college education, once thought of as the best tool to reduce inequality, may no longer live up to the hype.

That it won’t live up to those expectations doesn’t necessarily preclude any other reason for supporting a high quality, generously available, university education. Just don’t expect that ideal, in it’s pursuit or (unlikely) achievement, to magically reverse the great divergence of income between the top and bottom.

And finally, on the topic of inequality, I mentioned that most of the negative effects from living in poverty are already set long before students are ready to enter college. In that vein check out The Century Foundation’s excellent piece on seven lessons we can take away from what we know so far about childhood poverty, including this:

Growing up in poverty exacerbates negative environmental factors for children. Scientists label the immediate, physiological result “toxic stress.”


For children living in poverty, toxic stress is a common occurrence. […] But childhood need not be so obviously traumatic to create adverse effects. Studies have found that even repeated but relatively low-levels of stress inducers—such as hearing gunshots at a distance, or the lack of quality time with parents—can induce toxic stress. On the most basic level, time spent with children is a luxury low-income parents often cannot afford.

The end result of childhood toxic stress is lasting. Over-production of stress hormones can switch off genes necessary for healthy neuronal connections and strong development later in life.
About 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs before the age of five. In the first few years, as many as 700 neurons form a connection per second. When toxic stress interferes with these connections, it affects a child’s neurological development, leading to lifelong problems.

These “problems” include not even being able to pretend to compete in a education meritocracy that only truly awards winning the baseline-income-at-birth lottery. Even by the administration’s stated goal of using this proposal to create a more competitive workforce it fails. If you want to give the greatest number of kids the greatest opportunity to succeed later in life, the simplest and best solution is to ensure they don’t grow up poor.


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