Reforming Community College Education: David Brooks on Obama’s Community College Plan

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!

9 thoughts on “Reforming Community College Education: David Brooks on Obama’s Community College Plan

  1. Actually, I have 3 (count ’em 3) separate (almots incoherent) rants/posts up on the Initiative and the Brooks’ article, myself. With twenty years full-time Community College teaching experience, it really struck a nerve with melibe.

    Brooks is really a convenient straw man, although I don’t share your admiration for his “likability”. What we really have here is a policy which is the culmination of years of Republican era philosophies about education: particularly as regards “accountability”, probably, best expemplified by the Bush “No Child Left Behind” policies which we educators in Texas would happily tar and feather him for. I fear the requirement that we all justify our “success” is trickling up in ways we will all come to regret.

    There is quite a bit more to be said about the general perception of education in America. For most of my students degree=better job=more money. That equation is a tough one for us since, most of them don’t really understand what the degree is “suposed” to consist of and mean. But I am ranted out for the day. I will save that post for the future.

    Thanks, Dustin and for those of you interested my bog is entitled teachinganthropology and it is hosted by blogspot.


  2. Pam: I might have been being just a little bit snarky about Brooks’ likability. I mean, when I’ve seen him on TV, he’s come across as pleasant enough, but the whole “being wrong about everything” thing, especially given his proclivity towards being wrong in ways that are pretty hurtful, makes me doubt we’ll ever be particularly close buds.

    But like you say, Brooks’ individual wrongness isn’t the point — he’s just the vehicle for a particular viewpoint that, I think we agree, is bad for education. It was his particular agreement with Obama’s plan that spurred me to look more closely at it than I had — if Brooks agreed with it, I reasoned, it must not be very good. As I said in the post, there’s a whole section of the Obama-Biden plan that deals with affordability, which Brooks doesn’t talk about and which, one assumes, with which he’s not in agreement. So it’s probably overall better than Brook’s approval would suggest — but still worth watching, since as you say, there’s an especially nasty way of looking at education that’s taken hold across mainstream politics, and Obama, I’m pretty sure, is no exception.

  3. Thanks for that long and thoughtful post, Dustin/Oneman, and Pam, thanks for your two cents as well. Whenever I think of community colleges, I tend to think of them from the perspective of those who teach in them. My mom taught writing at a community college for a long time and was paid at wages that came out to less than minimum wage when her preparation, reading/grading and general admin work were added to the face-to-face hours, and so I’m acutely aware of how the system exploits teachers — even as it is full of wonderfully qualified, and often amazingly committed, teachers. But this post redirected my thinking towards the experiences of students in the community college system, and so I applaud both of you for not dwelling on your own experiences as teachers but instead thinking about the barriers and difficulties that your students face.

  4. LL Wynn: Thanks for those kind words. Of course, my experience as a teacher –and I would hope that this would apply to all teachers, at least the good ones — is intricately wound with that of my students. Like you mother, I am underpaid for the amount of work that every class inevitably ends up demanding, no matter how many times I’ve taught it before. But as much as possible, you have to leave that reality at the classroom door and just try, somehow, to engage students — they have more than their share of their own issues to think about, and I need to deal with those issues too if I hope to be at all effective.

    The community college where I teach dropped the word “community” from its name the year before last — from Community College of Southern Nevada to just College of Southern Nevada. This is unfortunate to me, even if it’s just symbolic — I think educators, students, and most of all policy-makers need that reminder that education is a community endeavor. As Pam pointed out on her site, too often we instructors are expected to be entirely responsible for our students’ learning, as if we talked and they just naturally learned. The reality is so much more complex than that — instructors play a role, yes (and we play it either well or poorly) but we are just one part of the whole process.

  5. I started my college experience at a community college almost 20 years ago, and I hate to sound like a snob, but, the community colleges here in my area are little more than high schools. The students they produce can not write at the level needed in my university level introduction courses. The local high schools all send many of their frustrated students to the community college and this has further degraded the level of education there. Any move to make 2-year community colleges 4-year institutions will only dumb-down an already weak education system.

  6. T9: I don’t think anyone (other than community college chancellors) wants to make 2-year colleges into 4-year universities. Unfortunately, given the failures of high schools to produce college-ready students, community college’s missions have to include remedial education to compensate (something a lot of universities used to do, too — I remember when CUNY, one of the great universities, dropped its remedial programs about a decade ago). Which is why I said above that community college reforms have to include K-12 reforms — we do no one any good by extending K-12 education 2-4 more years through junior colleges.

  7. Let us hope I don’t have as many typos this time around since I am not running out the door.

    T9, I think one of the things Brooks got right was the diversity of our student population at the Community College. I think its a bit sloppy thinking for anthropologists, of all people, to be lumping students into monolithic categories. Dustin will no doubt agree that you never know what will show up in your class. It is true many of my students are not ready for college-transfer and may never be. However, I, also, have many first generation students who can’t afford to go elsewhere or, perhaps, haven’t even thought that a possibility who can compete with the students at State U or even Ivy U. Or some of them have led some very interesting lives and are coming back to get the degree. Let us not sell Community College students short by shoehorning them into the unprepared/slacker category. Many have enough barriers to overcome without adding to them.

    My own daughter just finished up her first year at a major 4 year institution. Her cultural anth course was no more nor less rigorous than the one I teach at my Community College. And by the sound of it, her Prof had just as many difficulties with disengaged, texting students with poor writing skills as I face.

    As long as we continue to provide opportunity, I can’t help but feel it is all worth the effort.

  8. LL Wynn,

    Thanks for the kind words but in all fairness my first response on my own blog was fairly self-centered. I do resent the attempts to measure my “success” through the completion rates of my students. I have been facing increased tracking for the last few years and will be facing more in the coming years. We just had the new plan unveiled last week. *sigh*


  9. T9: I am a grad student at a UC school, and I have two observations. First, a large percentage of the students there have substandard writing skills. Second, I have frequently heard professors and other TAs comment that their best students are those who transferred in from a community college. I’ve noticed that myself – I have no idea why that is – perhaps many of them are paying their own way, and see going to a UC as a step up from their first college and work harder as a result – but its definitely worth noting.

    And I would second the idea that what we really need is better K-12 education. By the time you get to college you should know how to use an apostrophe – its frustrating to have to try and teach students course content at the same time that you need to teach them basic punctuation.

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