#SOTU And Community College

International readers: #SOTU = State of the Union — this is (typically) an annual speech (address) delivered by the President of the United States.

I love listening to #SOTU. I hate watching it because that thing called collaboration that we want our kids to learn, doesn’t seem to exist. From the half-clapping audience to the stone cold Speaker of the House on practically every thing that President Obama said, is just saddening. Is there a deep, serpentine, labyrinthine tangle of politics with respect to smiling and clapping on President Obama’s stance on such issues as equal pay, voter rights issues, gender equality issues, etc.? Who knows. Maybe. I’m not going to pretend to understand that world.

The world that I do have some understanding of is the world of (college) education and the world of “middle class economics”. First a few sound bites followed by my sound bite commentary. Don’t take it too seriously. After that, I want to talk a bit about free community college! Yes!(?)

  • ” … save $750 at the pump.” Woohoo! Savings! Wait, how did gas get to $3.50 per gallon? Oh, I see the trick. It’s what retailers do, jack up prices and then offer huge sales and call it savings! But this is savings, bureaucracy style. Maybe it’s more complicated than that. Who knows.
  • “HS graduation rate at all time high” And this means anything?
  • “more Americans finish college than ever before” And this means anything?
  • “middle class economics works” Yeah, I’ll buy that.
  • An info slide during the speech said: “child care costs more than public college in 31/50 States & DC” Ok, I’ll trust the statistic, but I don’t really know how this comparison was made. College is typically four years. Child care is typically 18 years? 17 years? 5 years? Is this an annualized comparison? Is this taking the four most expensive child care years and comparing it against the four years at college? Which colleges? Bleh.
  • Ye olde tax breaks, another info slide read: “larger child care tax credit for a family with two young kids ($6000), a tax credit for two working parents ($500), lower mortgage premium for buying a new home ($900), simplified college tax credit for students and families ($2500)” Oooh! Lower mortgage premium! You mean I’ll get a lower interest rate? Or did you mean I can take out a larger loan? Can it be an ARM please? Pretty please?? Oh and the net savings conveniently added to $9900 (per annum I assume). That extra symbolic $100 must’ve been a bargaining point. I can almost hear the conversation, “Look I want you to smile during #SOTU, so how about we make the net savings $9900, I’ll give you that $100.” And then the inevitable double-cross!! Ah, politics at its best.

I get a bit grumble-y about these things. But I like the message that President Obama had overall. It was positive, upbeat, and intended to motivate. That’s fine.

There were many other topics that were discussed in #SOTU, foreign policy, war, diplomacy, the state of the internet, gender equality, voter equality, energy independence, global climate change (warming), to name a bunch. And there was also the topic that had been in the news for the last few weeks: free community college.

Community College

Here are some sound bites about the community college initiative.

  • “America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, trained the best workforce in the world.”
  • “By the end of this decade 2 in 3 job openings will require some higher education.”
  • “… sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.” Yes!! This is great!!
  • “40% of our college students choose community college.” Interesting … choose.
  • Now with respect to free community college: “… understand you’ve got to earn it, you’ve gotta keep your grades up and graduate on time.” No. This is a mess. Why dangle the grade thing? It’s like “here’s a shiny new smart phone. But wait! I need to crack the screen first.”
  • An info slide read on the matter of free community college: “Benefiting 9 million people, saving the average full-time student $3800 per year.”Let’s remember these numbers 9 million people. $3800 per year.
  • “… two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.” Will these two years of college eventually become forced like high school is?

I teach part-time at a community college. I love the idea of giving anyone who wants it, two free years of community college. I have a lot of students who work 40 hours a week, try to take a few courses at the same time, have a family, etc. It’s tough. It’s tough financially, it’s tough from a time management standpoint, it’s tough from an endurance standpoint. A non-negligible number of students end up missing class because they had to work overtime so that they could afford the class (or a different necessary expense). So the thought, idea, compassion, and understanding behind making two years of community college free is great.

But then, it’s the “you’ve got to earn it, you’ve gotta keep your grades up and graduate on time” line that ruins everything for me. Why put these conditions on? If the idea is that there are people who want to go to college, but can’t feasibly afford it, and that our workforce will need more college educated folks, then why not simply entrust them with their education? What’re they going to do? Are they going to take two free years and purposefully fail? And what if they do? Who cares! Are we worried about the cost?

Here are those numbers I said to remember: 9 million people, $3800 of savings per year per student (on average). You know what we do with these numbers? We multiply them to find total annual cost to the government:
$$9000000 \times \$3800 = \$34,200,000,000$$

That’s 34.2 billion dollars per year of “waste” under the scenario that all 9 million people decide to sign up for community college, have the government pay for it, and then purposefully flunk their courses for two years. Is 34.2 billion dollars per year a lot of money? Eh, It’s not even half a month of quantitative easing. It sure as heck isn’t even a war! I think it’s about a month of war (I remember seeing a (possibly unreliable) statistic that said that our wars in the 2000s cost about \$1 billion per day). It’s silly. It’s bad enough that we’ve got the “I Just Need A C” mentality, we don’t need to have that get turned up a notch.

The other thing that bothers me is that these two free years of community college will eventually become mandatory once students graduate from high school. I can see how it’ll play out: “Hey, it’s free, we’re paying for it, it’s good for you, you must go, there’s no choice.”

As much as I love the idea of two years of zero-cost community college, I am hoping that trust in the student and the ability for the student to choose will remain. Otherwise, what’s the point? This won’t really become a second chance. It’ll become 13th and 14th grade.

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One thought on “#SOTU And Community College

  1. Bill

    I think it’s already happened that the first two years of college now are what high school was 30 years ago.

    But my concern is for my own profession. Major programs are funded by service classes. I get to teach smaller upper-level classes like Topology and Geometric Transformations because I also teach lots of calculus. If students are all taking calculus at community college, how are the upper-level classes ever going to be viable?


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