Well Snowmageddonpocalypse means a day of lolling, cooking and pondering, including noddling down some thoughts regarding recent discussions about free community college for all.
Well, not “all” exactly. But the proposal from the White House that’s been bandied about (one that was mentioned during the recent State of the Union address) wants to translate the aspirational goal of “anyone who wants to go to college should be able to do so” (i.e., should be able to do so without money being the deciding factor) into a specific program focusing on that component of our current higher education system with the fewest barriers to entry: community colleges.
Having worked with a number of community colleges during my brief foray into educational publishing, I can attest to the fact that these schools tend to already be the most entrepreneurial of all post-secondary academic institutions. While Ivy League schools (especially those involved with the MOOC experiment) are just now getting excited about online learning and flipping classrooms, many community-college-taught disciplines (such as technology) have been online and flipped for years.
Also, the glut of PhDs in the marketplace means that community colleges are where many able teachers end up (even if they do so as underpaid adjuncts). And, unlike at research universities, these credentialed academics are paid to teach (not publish or perish).
So, in some respects, it seems as though community colleges are ripe for further investment with some proponents who support Obama’s proposal going so far as to claim it should be considered the next logical step in a bi-partisan legacy of successful educational investment that included public school for all, land-grant colleges (which led to the state university system), the GI Bill, and today’s myriad college aid programs.
Such an argument packs power, which is why this legacy of national educational investment tends to get attached to any proposal to spend public money on any aspect of schooling (primary, secondary and post-secondary). But if you look over those previous investments, they tended to pay for programs designed to fill a vacuum.
When the nation moved to a system of universal public education, for example, only a small percentage of the population was participating in the equivalent of today’s K-12 system, which meant that the nation’s investment in public schools went into building something entirely new. .
Similarly, programs designed to make college affordable for more people (veterans with the GI Bill, everyone else with federal loan and grant programs) led to the creation of new colleges and universities – as well as the massive expansion of existing ones – which left the higher-ed landscape completely transformed at the end of trillions in investment.
This transformational growth left us with our current glut of choices when it comes to obtaining a college degree, choices that include large private research universities, small private colleges and public universities offering four-year degrees; community colleges offering two-year degrees and certificate programs; for-profit colleges offering 2-year, 4-year and even graduate degrees; and new hard-to-categorize entrepreneurial projects like MOOCs or the Minerva Project.
Each of these existing choices has its own strengths and weaknesses. The high cost of private college and low graduation rates at state schools tends to make news, as does financial aid scandals (especially when they hit for-profit colleges). But community colleges have their own problems, including unfocused missions, low completion rates and high variability in terms of quality of education.
So ramping up investment in this one component of our higher-ed hierarchy means placing a bet that community colleges can (1) absorb that kind of growth; and (2) will use these new resources to change/improve, not just expand the number of people who have to live with all the plusses and minuses of the existing system.
This whole debate might be moot, given the lack of political appetite for major new social-spending programs (even in an area like education that tends to command bi-partisan support). But the President’s proposal should add to the conversation about where we want the nation’s higher education system to go.
And if it snows as long as it’s supposed to, expect to see some options worth considering sketched out in the next Degree of Freedom News to be published later in the week. If you’d like to get a copy fresh off the presses, just punch your e-mail address into that subscription box over there –>
And happy shoveling!