A Safer Way to Squander

Ashley Thorne

President Obama this week announced the launch of the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), a $12 billion fund for the nation’s community colleges. In his address at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, the president compared the Initiative to the original GI bill signed by Roosevelt, and he reminded the audience of his ambition to expand  higher education: 

at the start of my administration I set a goal for America:  By 2020, this nation will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.  We used to have that.  We're going to have it again.

AGI will do three things: provide grants to help more students attend and graduate from college and secure a job; back $10 billion in loans to colleges to rebuild and renovate their campus buildings, and support the development of new online education systems. The $12 billion initiative, if spread evenly among the1,685 two-year colleges in the United States, will provide $7.1 million to each college.

We at NAS have been skeptical of President Obama’s expansion plans, which would require doubling the number of college students in the United States over the next decade. We have also addressed similar aspirations voiced by the College Board, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Lumina Foundation. Aiming to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world sounds like a perfectly wholesome opportunity for more people to partake in higher education. But we see two problems.

First, in higher education, quantity and quality generally have an inverse relationship. Today many students who are admitted to college are seriously under-prepared for college work. Often they are assigned to remedial programs to learn the basics they should have acquired in high school. Their entry into regular college classes is deferred, and many fall by the wayside before they ever reach the level of a standard freshman curriculum. Those who do persist through this ordeal can end up with a truncated college program. Remediation of course is only one response to ill-prepared students. Some colleges choose the more expedient route of just making the curriculum easier for all—sacrificing academic rigor for the sake of larger enrollments.

Expanding college enrollment also erodes quality in other, perhaps less obvious, ways. As enrollments have ballooned, people have noticed that college graduates seem less reliably in command of core skills. That observation has fueled a national movement to hold colleges responsible for “student learning outcomes” (SLOs), a set of concrete goals that students must reach by the end of each course.  This superficially attractive fix-it actually makes the problem worse. Since the professor knows he will be held accountable for how well his students achieve the “learning outcomes” he has announced in advance, he has a strong incentive to make those outcomes as easy as possible. And the components of a college curriculum that are not reducible to easily measured outcomes suffer most of all. For these reasons, SLOs can stunt true learning.

The new move to expand the university also comes at a time when the American university seems to be changing its mission: Many colleges now indulge a rhetoric that suggests much less interest in educating students, than in “transforming” them.  The transformation that college officials have in mind is a kind of character reformation.

Higher education is now seen as a means to erase biases, to liberate the student from tradition and oppression, to train the next generation of political activists in “citizenship,” and to instill in graduates a deep sense of social and environmental responsibility. Often these ideals translate to radical ideologies, and students get inculcated in a steady diet of eco-socialism, racial preferences, and hostility to white or religious people. 

The combination of these factors—the decrease in academic rigor plus politicization in the classroom—makes doubling the size of higher education an ineffectual idea. Graduating more and more students who learned a lot about activism but know little else will not increase America’s global competitiveness. Rather than sparking Americans’ innovation, curiosity, and desire for higher knowledge, the mass university will simply churn out large numbers of diplomas stripped of intellectual value.

But let us think again about the $12 billion community college initiative. In his speech, President Obama said something we agree with: “Community colleges are an undervalued asset in our country.  Not only is that not right, it's not smart.” To be sure, community colleges are undervalued and overlooked.  Community colleges comprise almost half of America’s institutions of higher education, and 43 percent of college students are enrolled in them. 

And like President Obama, we think community colleges deserve more appreciation. At a two-year school, students can learn practical knowledge for less money, and they usually don’t encounter the same kinds of politicization in their courses that they would at a four-year institution. Since they don’t live on campus, they are free from ideological reeducation programs in residence life like that at the University of Delaware. Also because they don’t live on campus, students are much less likely to engage in as much binge drinking, casual sex, and other “I’m-finally-free-from-my-parents” behavior that is characteristic at residential colleges. Great Books programs thrive at some community colleges, and there is a prevailing instinct to provide something useful in a short amount of time.

And so our thought is that, if the government is going to dole out funds for higher education, community colleges are the best places to invest.  We realize that others have expressed some doubt. Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, for example, notes that “the bulk of the money in the community college proposal serves not to encourage efforts to promote rethinking, but to help them process more bodies.” He expresses surprise at President Obama’s “bland confidence” that community colleges can deliver worthwhile results in view of their “rickety architecture.” Dr. Hess isn’t referring to the reinforced concrete bunker style buildings on many community college campuses, but to their educational architecture which “may not provide the optimal platform for 21st-century job training.”

Point taken. Community colleges are not the panacea that President Obama hopes for and the nation might be much better advised to seek more fundamental reforms, such as opening up genuine school choice for children at the K-12 level. We need the sort of educational changes that will make a high school diploma once again a credential that reliably connotes a solid education. Spending billions of dollars to hand off the graduates of dysfunctional public schools to already overburdened community colleges wouldn’t be our first preference among policy initiatives. But realistically, President Obama has no interest in disturbing the teacher union-dominated status quo in public schools. If he is going to force-feed millions of unprepared students into higher education, the option of pumping up community colleges to gigantic proportions looks slightly more wholesome—or at least less damaging—than shoehorning them into our four-year colleges. 

Perhaps the $12 billion Obama initiative for community colleges should be pictured as a Macy’s parade. Huge inflated versions of familiar figures such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer waft on by, awing the crowds, and harming no one, except on those rare occasions when Sonic the Hedgehog assaults an off-duty cop, a Cat in the Hat fractures a woman’s skull, or an 850 pound M&M knocks the daylights out of two sisters. No education policy, no matter how inflated, is without risks.

While we remain circumspect about the colossal Carnegie-Lumina-Obama goal, we choose to be un-AGI-tated by AGI. Especially at a time when families are paying too much for too little, we hope community colleges will become more attractive to those who are serious about getting an education.

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