There has been a lot of talk about Obama’s recent commitment to community college education. The plan, outlined here, calls for increased community college graduation, funding for innovation in educational strategies and techniques for increasing completion rates, increased partnerships between community colleges and businesses, modernized facilities, and the development of online courses (interestingly to be created and distributed by the Department of Defense).
I don’t really know enough to evaluate all the elements of the plan — from a cursory glance, it looks like it will be a helpful in certain areas, overall doing little but doing little harm, as well. It’s not the kind of massive educational reform we need at the community college level (and even more at the university level, and still more at the K-12 level), but I see little reason to be against it.
Except for this: David Brooks supports it. And David Brooks’ track record is perfect: he’s never been right about anything. I mean, he gets details right here and there — there is a president named “Obama”, there are community colleges, students do indeed exist — but not always (e.g. the famous “you can’t get a meal over $20 in this small town” deal, to which the town’s residents replied “well, you could try one of the restaurants”) and on the Big Picture he is just stunningly, spectacularly… off. Now wrong, per se, just off.
Don’t get me wrong — I like David Brooks. He makes me laugh. He has never had a conversation with a working class person that hasn’t made him an expert on all things working class (which is probably why he has limited his interaction with real working class people to just one or two — he doesn’t need any more!). He writes with verve and style and a kind of friendly helpfulness that I find endearing. Just because the man’s wrong about everything doesn’t mean he’s not likable.
Here’s the nugget of Brook’s argument:
Nor is increased student aid fundamentally important. I’ve had this discussion with my liberal friends a thousand times, and I have come to accept that they will never wrap their minds around the truth: lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.
Affordability is way down the list. You can increase student aid a ton and you still won’t have a huge effect on college completion.
Now there are a couple of uncharacteristically correct observations here. Poor academic preparation, emotional disengagement, lack of self-discipline, and difficult home lives are all factors in poor community college outcomes. But he’s wrong, dead wrong, in assuming these things have nothing to do with student aid and affordability — or in seeing Obama’s plan as somehow alleviating any of them. And he’s also wrong in looking to college completion rates as an indicator of community college success or failure.
Taking this point by point, then:
- Academic preparation: It’s no good presenting students’ lack of academic preparation as a failure of the community college. Making up for lack of academic preparation is part of the community college mission. And it’s part of that mission because of massive failures in the K-12 education system. Accomplishing this mission is hard because remedial education is one of the first cuts community colleges make in the face of inadequate budgets.
- Emotional disengagement: It’s rare to find students who are deeply invested in education as education because of the economic realities that drive them into the community college. While community colleges serve many diverse communities, the largest are the young, working- and lower-middle-class students for whom education is not a “ticket out” but a requirement to achieve the cultural capital they need just to stay in place. In the choice between college — with all its opportunity costs — and joblessness, students choose college, but its lesser-than-two-evilism is hardly emotionally compelling.
- Lack of self-discipline: This is a problem community colleges share with their peers at the university, but it’s effect is vastly amplified by the economic situation most community college students live in. The vast majority of my university students are full-time students; only a handful work full-time or even part-time. In contrast, from 60 to 100 percent of my community college students hold down full-time jobs. The inability to manage their time, maintain their focus, and prioritize their educations that university students compensate for by pulling all-nighters and the occasional guilt-driven week-long “buckle down” session leaves community college students falling further and further behind with no way to catch up.
- Difficult home lives: Again, in contrast to many university students, community college students have home lives. Some live with (and take care of) their parents and siblings; others live with their spouses and children. Some endure abusive relationships, others have been on the run from gangs — gangs either they or their siblings have had past dealing with — for years. Many dropped out of school to support their families before gaining their GEDs and enrolling at the community college. In They are, by and large, poor. And that means they often lack the economic resources to cope with the demands of community college — the cost of classes, books, supplies (like PCs) — and also lack the social resources to cope with job challenges like shifting schedules and family challenges like sick children.
All of these problems then are, if not caused directly by economic hardship, at least exacerbated by them. Although community college is, relative even to public universities, fairly cheap, relative to the incomes of poor students it is expensive.Three-credit classes at my community college run $160-200(summer courses and distance-ed courses have a premium), putting a full-time semester in the range of $1000; add books and supplies for another $500, and you’re looking at a few thousand dollars a year to take classes tucked around a difficult work-and-commute schedule and potentially a difficult family schedule. Measuring student outcomes better — which Brooks advocates — is not going to solve that.
If I had infinite power over the reform of higher education in our country, I’d look to the British system, whereby students receive government grants to cover not only tuition and books but living expenses, too. And I’d make sure that every community college established a high bar for entry into 100-level courses and offered sufficient remediation — also funded — to achieve it. (That’s a stop-gap measure, though — I’d be chatting with my infinitely-empowered colleague in K-12 about making sure students don’t graduate high school unprepared in the first place!)
Pipe dreams aside, though, the bottom line for poor students is that education is not a luxury, it’s an expensive necessity just to maintain their already-low standards of living. Making community colleges into better vocational-training institutions — that is what all the talk about “partnership with businesses” is all about — only reinforces that, which means it does nothing to address the lack of emotional attachment and self-discipline that concerns Brooks, nor the outside pressures that make education a low-priority for many community college students.
Which is also why the emphasis on completion rates is misguided. First of all, not all community college students are degree-bound. In my six years as a community college professor, my best students have been olders tudents who are taking a class or two for their own interest, to further job-related skills in hopes of a promotion or transfer, to make up for opportunities missed when younger, and so on. Many of them have no interest in a degree, which frees them up to engage the educational process itself. Mind you, many of them are as unprepared for college-level work as their 18-year-old peers — and are often less prepared, having received poor educations to begin with and now being 10, 20, or more years removed from their last classroom experience. The advantage they have is that they are generally more financially secure than their younger counterparts, and better able to balance their coursework against their other obligations. Plus, they have a kind of confidence thatcomes of not necessarily having succeeded but of having at least supported themselves as adults, an prospect that my younger students often find terrifying — and with good reason, as they see their friends, families, and peers ground further into poverty around them.
Focusing on graduation rates does nothing to address the challenges that face community college students — it’s a measure that encapsulates nothing of what makes my non-degree students perform better than my degree-seeking ones. I teach at one of the nation’s largest community colleges, where we have one of the lowest completion rates (the national avergae is around 50%; ours is in the low single-digits). We have fine modern facilities, more than adequate computer resources, campuses placed conveniently around the Las Vegas valley, and motivated, creative instructors.
Yet, every semester I see 1/3 to 1/2 of my students disappear over the course of the semester. And I’m not alone, judging from the gradual emptying out of parking lots that overflowed at the beginning of the semester. In contrast, I rarely lose even one or two students from my university courses — even when I teach the exact same course. (For two years, I taught “Gender, Race, and Class” at both schools, using the same books, same syllabus, same assignments, and of course same me — a pretty good control situation for a postmodernist like myself!) The difference is not in the schools (or not primarily in the schools), it’s in the students and the environment they live in — an environment that’s overwhelmingly friendlier to white, middle-class students than to poorer students and students of color.
So, I’m sorry Mr. Brooks, but affordability and lack of student aid are, indeed, central factors in the failures of community colleges. Improving educational resources is great, but if it doesn’t address the financial reality of poor students’ lives, I wouldn’t expect much of an improvement, however you measure outcomes. Obama’s plan might well do some good — it’s part of a larger plan that does address college affordability — but on its own, it’s more likely to provide benefits for businesses and college administrations than for community college students — students who, ultimately, deserve a lot better than just job training. They deserve an education!