Is Free College Really The Best Idea?

One of the pillars of Democratic Party orthodoxy today is the push for free college for all.  At the state level, one of the most ambitious programs is to be found in New York, where the Excelsior Scholarship program has rendered tuition-free both 2 and 4 year public colleges throughout the state for students whose family income is under $125,000 per year.  Approximately 17 states now offer some form of free college to their residents, and it seems likely that more states will develop these sorts of programs in the years ahead.

These free college programs are not, of course, without their critics.

Many have pointed out that these programs many times actually function as a massive subsidy offered to middle class families that previously did not qualify for income-based scholarships; poor students have long paid nominalor zerotuition costs due to existing federal and state aid programs targeted to low-income students and their families.  Moreover, these free college programs are typically available only to those who attend full-time, which locks out those who need to work while attending school in order to cover their daily living expenses.  Although the college tuition might be free, students still need food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roof over their heads, which may greatly restrict the use of many these free college programs.

In addition, freeis a deceptive term to use because these programs are certainly not free for taxpayers.  The New York State program, although much more limited in actual scope than advertised because of the many restrictions attached, still carries a price tag of $87 million this year alonewith costs estimated to rise to at least $163 million annually when fully implemented.

However, the fundamental problem with free college is simple and direct: Access does not equal success.  The scandalous and continuing national crisis of inadequate college preparedness at the K-12 levelwhich decades of incredibly expensive education reformhas yet to addresstranslates into a great many students starting college but failing to complete.  

How widespread is this problem?  Tennessee has for many years offered free tuition to the states community colleges at a taxpayer cost of only $45 million annuallykeeping the outlay lower by covering only that portion of tuition not already picked up by federal Pell Grants.  

However, although the costs might be relatively low for Tennessees taxpayers, there is still ample reason to question whether this is a wise investment of state funds.  Data shows that during the 2016-2017 school year nearly half of the states high school graduates required remedial coursework during their first year of collegeand nearly half had dropped out after two years.  No matter how much educators might want to try to talk their way around it by desperately pointing to other factors that sometimes affect college completion, it is plain that the promised economic and individual benefits of free college are colliding headlong with the disappointing academic preparation that is the daily reality of Americas public schools.

Therefore, looking at the soaring promises of the politicians and educators who advocate putting taxpayers even further on the hook for the costs of free college, a reasonable person might be prompted to ask if the reality is somewhat different from the rhetoricand whether the estimated $70 billion needed to fund the College For Allplans supported by many Democrats is a good use of scarce tax dollars when our national debt now tops $22 trillion.

The many well-meaning promises attached to college that is freestill will be hampered by the vast number of American high school graduates who are academically unprepared to succeed in collegefree or otherwise.  If we want these taxpayer dollars to have the impact we hope that they will, we need to be smart enoughand brave enoughto ask whether college for allactually means failure for many.  Rather than asking taxpayers to pay for college students to again try to learn material that should have been mastered in high school, perhaps a more impactful program would tie taxpayer support to documented student academic preparedness for college-level coursework.

However annoying this discussion might be for those politicians who are anxious to create yet another endlessly expensive entitlement funded by already beleaguered taxpayers, it seems sensible to ask a few difficult questions now about this hazy dream in order to prevent a great deal of money from being pointlessly wasted in the years ahead.

Higher education is important, and we now knowall too wellthat our burdensome and outrageous student loan programs have been an unmitigated disaster that has both enabled obscene increases in college costs and created a gigantic debtor class of Americans whose financial futures are terribly hobbled.  Perhaps it could be persuasively argued that any college experience is beneficial, so free college would be a worthwhile taxpayer expenseregardless of the outcomes.  This is a viewpoint deserving of careful considerationas is the idea that money spent on education can never truly be wastedin the manner that other tax dollars often are.

Nonetheless, it might be worth stopping and thinking before we rush to pay for many students to make a pit stop on a college campusonly to later leave with little learning and no credential.  College is a great experience for many, but it may be the case that we still have thinking to do about how we pay for itand whether freeis the best path forward.  Perhaps some combination of grants and merit-based scholarships will be the mix that provides the magic.  Before any further decisions are made to create a new line in the federal financial ledger, we need to carefully study the long-term experiences of state-level programsparticularly regarding the impacts on student success.

However, whatever direction we ultimately take from here, we also need to give immediate consideration to the question of how we can relieve the frightening burden of the student loans that are now ruining the lives of many.  We cannot continue to ask so many to pay for a grievous past error in government policy that became a trap for so many Americans and their families, and I believe this is the step we must first take before we decide how to help those who will attend college in the future.

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Two Terrible Ways Schools Rob Children Of Their Futures—And Make Money Doing So

I recently discussed with a colleague one of the oddities many of us continually encounter when teaching college students, and we both agreed this is one of the maddening truths of dealing with high school graduates today: They simply do not believe us when we explain that they will fail our courses if they neglect to pay attention and do the work we have assigned.  

However, the sheer incredulity that I sometimes encounter when I explain to a young adult that they have flunked is perfectly understandable to me.  We are often today dealing with students who were pencil-whipped through their high school courses, offered phony-baloney credit recovery for those classes where they did not even bother to attend, and were generally taught nothing in K-12 other than that there is no actual consequence for steadfast ignorance.  Therefore, why should they believe that their college teacher has no intention for passing them just because they are carbon-based life forms?  Was this ever the case during their 13 year plod through public schooling?  

Probably not.

K-12 education in America is typical of most entrenched government bureaucracies: There is no connection at all between pay and performance.  In fact, given that school funding is typically tied to nothing other than mere daily attendance, there is truly no incentive for anyone to bother with teaching and learning.  Your local public school will get their cash from local taxes, state funding, and federal grants whether students are studying Calculus or sleeping through a film on penguin reproduction.  Outcomes have no real place in American public education; the point is to keep students in a seat so the funding keeps rolling in.  If youve ever wondered why 35 years of education reform has resulted in negligible results while costing taxpayers a small fortune, this is a good place to begin your inquiry.

This peculiar quirk of how we fund K-12 education perhaps helps to explain at least some portion of the attraction to our latest American educational fad: Restorative Justicediscipline in our public schools.  

Despite any reliable research to demonstrate the efficacy of this punishment-light approach to school discipline, one that exchanges suspensions and expulsions of troublemakers with methods more akin to plain wishful thinking, Restorative Justice—“RJin todays lingohas taken hold across the nation.  Aside from promising that a more nurturing and sensitive approach is somehow better than dealing forcefully with those who disrupt classes, instill fear, and injure others, this method also puts money directly into the pockets of any district that adopts it because students who are expelled or suspended do not count as being in attendance, which means the money that follows them in the door will not be forthcoming.  Consequently, RJ can be a moneymaker disguised as compassionalthough the compassion seems to extend not at all to the victims of the bullies, stalkers, and abusers who now need not fear many (if any) consequences for causing physical and emotional harm to others.

Forgiveness does, of course, have a place in the classroom because young people always make mistakes, which is the reason we place them under the care and supervision of adults, and learning from mistakes is a necessary part of emotional maturation and development.  

Therefore, public schools have an obligation to model and teach the necessity of engaging in respectful behavior, obeying reasonable rulesand accepting the punishment that follows if respect is not offered and rules are not followed.  The alternative is to enable the most selfish attitudes and the rudest possible behavior among our young, which is going to further harm these children and adolescents as they proceed through life and discover just how many doors are closed to them due to learning from their public schools that lashing out has no consequence attached.  Educators who tacitly encourage misbehavior by failing to nip it in the bud are actively harming the young people in their care, and parents should be appalled at what is being taught—or not being taught—to their children through the Restorative Justice model of school discipline.

The same misguided compassion(not to mention the same yearning for the cash tied to school attendance) that informs our nations misbegotten embrace of Restorative Justice also animates the continued movement toward dramatically reducingor outright banninghomework in our nations public schools.  Setting aside for a moment the boon these practices provide for classroom teachers who will no longer need to deal with stacks of assignments to grade, policies that reduce or eliminate homework also keep many students coming to school because the stress of the academic workload is dramatically lessened.  Everyone may enjoy the opportunity to relax more and study less, but the negative impacts are rarely discussed.

Although some argue that any policy that keeps students in school is most definitely a good one, it must be pointed out that actual learning requires mastering the skills necessary to study andwork independently.  Moreover, the complex and time-intensive assignments that are necessary in middle and high school to enable students to learn the higher level academic skills they will need later in lifeparticularly if college is part of their life plansimply cannot be squished into the confines of the regular school day.  Homework is a critical adjunct to classroom instruction, and the failure to learn how study and work independently perhaps helps to explain why 30% of college freshman across our nation do not return for their sophomore yearsthey are simply unable to sustain the study habits necessary for classroom success.  

Would assigning and grading homework in K-12 have helped the millions of students who will abandon higher education this year? Would abandoning Restorative Justice discipline policies improve our schools and help our students?  I would argue that the answer is yes to both questions, but I am certain the Education professors will continue to publish academic papers suggesting otherwise.  Why is this the case?  Darned if I know, but at least their learned studies provide plenty of cover for school districts who care more about the cash tied to attendance than providing safe and academically sound classrooms for our nations children.

A Modest Proposal For Our Public Schools

We live in the age of “big ideas” regarding how we can improve K-12 education in America.

We need personalized learning. Flipped classrooms would help. Teachers and students need to practice mindfulness. We could use more classroom technology—or perhaps less. No child will be left behind. Every student will succeed. I anxiously await the Lake Woebegone Education Act of 2035, which will mandate that every child be certifiably above average.

Let’s face the hard truth right here and now: All these many, many decades of reforms later, real and lasting improvements in K-12 academic outcomes are hard to find, and much of the available evidence points to further systemic declines.

Standardized tests continue to show that huge numbers of students are failing to learn, but apparently we should pay no attention to these test scores because they are nothing but a “snapshot” that fails to capture the “whole child”. As a result, hordes of high school graduates will continue to enroll in college each year—yet be wholly unprepared for college work—and flunk out after a semester or two. This is, however, not a reflection of the work being done (or not being done) at your local public schools. These danged kids must be partying too much.

Local news media—which pretty much operate as transcription services these days—will continue to report that their public schools are doing a fine job because these local television stations and newspapers really have no alternative but to do so. To report honestly about deficient academic measures and outcomes runs the risk of angering homeowners who are worried about their property values and contractors who are equally worried that the latest school construction bond might not pass and hence screw them out of lovely, fat paychecks. Any national or governmental data on broader problems with our country’s public schools do not, of course, apply to the schools in your own community, which the local news media have assured you are doing an excellent job preparing your children for successful futures. The circular logic of it all is a wonder to behold.

However, if a child is willing to sit in a classroom—or anywhere inside the building—so that your local district can collect their daily apportionment of state tax dollars, all will be well. If a student doesn’t like to write, that child can complete an “alternative” assignment—draw something, perhaps? If a child flunks a test, there is no need for worry—the school will likely allow unlimited test retakes. Hate to take notes or study? A student need have no concerns about that—count on a “study guide” the day before the quiz that contains all the answers. If nothing else works, your child can always enroll in a “credit recovery” course where, after watching a few movies and jotting down some random thoughts, full course credit will be expeditiously granted.

There are, of course, still public schools where some standards are maintained—and more and more charter schools are opening to provide alternatives for frustrated parents and students—but the daily reality for many children and adolescents throughout the length and breadth of our nation is maximum busywork and minimum learning. These problems later wash up on the doorsteps of our nation’s beleaguered community colleges, which are expected to somehow remediate 13 empty years of schooling within the span of a single semester.

I have suggestion so radical that to speak it out loud almost tempts a bolt of lightning to strike: Start flunking students who cannot perform to a minimal level of competence, which should translate into skills that would give that student a 50/50 chance of earning a C in a first year college course.

This does not seem an unreasonably high standard to set, and it would both bring some much-needed rigor back into our nation’s public schools and provide some reward for hard work. Our current system of striving to pass any student who can fog a mirror has turned much of our core coursework into a joke and has convinced everyone—students and teachers alike—that caring about learning is a waste of time.

Our unrealistically high graduation rates would obviously dip were we to adopt this standard throughout our nation’s schools, but those who thereafter received a diploma would at least have some assurance they possessed a good portion of the skills necessary to succeed in college or job training—and would not be condemned to a life of nothing other than the most minimally skilled jobs.

As odd as it might be to say this to those many Americans who are unaware of the diploma mills that so many of our public schools have become, implementing and sticking to this standard would entail a shock to the system akin to violent revolution. Rather than just pencil-whipping students through the grades, it would involve actual teaching, assessment, learning, and the many stresses of hard and sustained work—with no guarantee of success—that were once common in our nation’s public schools. Those teachers and administrators who cannot adjust to this new reality would need to be pushed aside, the happy nonsense that consumes so much of the average school day would need to be discarded, and both students and parents would need to face up to the fact that failure is sometimes a necessary stop on the path to actual learning.

Our other option is, of course, to continue to chase every educational fad that comes along, make excuses, and keep right on cheating many, many eighteen year olds of their futures while giving them nothing but an utterly false sense of their own competencies. A renewed commitment to teaching and learning seems an obvious choice to make, but one should never underestimate the corrosive powers of the inertia, laziness, petty politics, and bureaucratic timidity that are the hallmarks of American public education today.

Would Emergency Micro-Grants Help More Community College Students Succeed?

“Persistence” is a buzzword most educators at community colleges hear a great deal. We know too many students enter classes in the fall and—often before even the full academic year has passed—are gone from campus. Not surprisingly, a great deal of thought goes into what can be done to help students—especially the many who are older and re-entering the classroom or the first in their family to attend college—to complete their classes and secure a degree. There are a variety of ways to massage and tweak the data on degree attainment, but widely reported national percentages for completion tend to land in the low twenties. Obviously, everyone who works with community college students wants to do much, much better than this.

A great many good and helpful programs have already been implemented, and most boil down to providing more cocoon-like and intrusive advisory or educational interventions. Whether we are talking about mandated tutoring, individualized study tools, academic coaching, or even wake up calls to encourage students out of bed in the morning, most initiatives are some variation on the theme of hand holding. Truthfully, some students who lack confidence or independent life skills need exactly this because that which would seem obvious to many—attend classes regularly, complete the required readings, ask questions in class, and take careful notes—might not be so for students who attended academically deficient public schools or have no college-educated family members or close friends to act as mentors or role models.

It is also, of course, often the case that a simple lack of college-level skills in reading, writing, and math places many students into remedial coursework where they struggle to catch up. This is a continuing and largely avoidable tragedy that speaks to our national failure to provide every child with the opportunity for a quality education. The grievous dropout rate at our nation’s community colleges will continue to be inflated by inadequate public schools as long as we insist on handing high school diplomas to the equivalent of functional illiterates.

There is, however, another category of community college dropout whose problems I believe bear closer examination: those who are adequately prepared, motivated to succeed, but are dragged down by relatively minor financial circumstances beyond their control.

I am thinking of the single mother who has an unexpected expense and cannot pay her daycare provider at the moment. Unable to attend class for a week or more, she falls behind and grows frustrated. Upon her return, even though she has tried to work on her own and emailed her instructors for help, she needs to work much harder than her classmates to catch up—if she ever does.

I am thinking of the young man who has car problems and lives beyond the range where public transportation is possible. He misses classes while scrambling for a way to pay for the repair that will allow him to return to class. He emails his instructors, he knows what he is missing in class, and by the time he finally finds a relative or friend who can help pay for the necessary repair or provide transportation, the possibility of a successful semester is already slipping away.

I am thinking of the young woman who has a part-time hourly job in retail to help cover her living expenses while she is in school. Unfortunately, she falls seriously ill and misses over a week of school and work. There is no issue with her school absences beyond the assignments she needs to catch up on because she was medically excused from class, but the missed hours at work are a tremendous problem regarding her budget—so she takes on additional shifts when she is barely back on her feet to help cover her rent and food. As a result, she loses time to study and to fully recover from her illness, which has the inevitable negative impact on her wellbeing, classwork, and grades.

The three examples I have sketched from my experiences with my own community college students have a common theme: a minor financial setback becomes an academic catastrophe.

In all of these cases and many others like them, the amount of money necessary to keep these students in their classes and on track to graduate was shockingly modest—perhaps a couple of hundred dollars could have saved their semesters and helped them to succeed in school. The question I have when I see adequately prepared and motivated students fall by the wayside due to a financial glitch that is relatively minor and utterly beyond their control is this: Should community colleges “invest” a bit of money in these students today to help them to graduate tomorrow?

Compared to the staff, facility, travel, and advertising expenses associated with continuing to recruit new students to replace those who are lost—but might have been saved at the cost of a few hundred dollars at a critical juncture in their educational lives—there might be a very good dollars and cents argument to be made here. Moreover, the availability of this sort of emergency grant—some portion of which could be tailored to assist students who fit a particularly high-risk profile—could also draw more students into reaching out for other help offered by the college rather than just disappearing. If $200 for a new starter motor for a car today is going to help a student walk across the stage and collect an Associate degree a few years in the future, I cannot but believe this is a worthy—and worthwhile—expense.

I well understand the reasons community colleges will be wary of setting up programs to make emergency micro-grants. Community college trustees and state administrators would be understandably fearful of the negative publicity and investigations that would certainly result from this type of initiative were it to be poorly managed. No one wants to open the newspaper and read about sneaky students with sob stories scamming their local community college for weed money.

However, appropriate guidelines and management controls could certainly be developed by community colleges that would greatly minimize—although admittedly not eliminate entirely—the possibilities for abuse and misuse of the funds set aside for this purpose. Any such program should certainly start small and scale up as experience working with students provides the feedback necessary to fine-tune the process of disbursing funds, but it must not fall into bureaucratic deadlock if it is to be truly helpful to students facing a short-term financial crisis.

Although no reasonable person is going to suggest simply handing out cash from a shoebox in the Dean’s office, a program of this type will be effective if—and only if—funds can be provided within a business day. The more time that passes between the articulation of the financial emergency and its resolution, the fewer students who actually will be helped.

Is this idea worth a shot? That would be up to an individual community college to decide. However, it might be worth asking what is currently being spent on all programs at that college connected to student recruitment and retention, gather those figures, do some rough calculations, and ask whether a $250 grant that has, for the sake of argument, a 50/50 chance of keeping a student in school is a bargain when balanced against all the other expenses on the other side of the ledger.

I offer this idea for consideration because I believe we need to challenge ourselves to think outside the box to find solutions that will better serve our students—including those who are motivated but lack, for a variety of reasons, the economic safety net other students might possess. Given the well-documented crisis of non-completion at our nation’s community colleges, perhaps it is time for some innovative initiatives that are based upon the real world challenges that so many of our economically vulnerable students actually face. If we do not stretch beyond the tried and true (but perhaps not entirely effective) solutions of the past, we risk losing more and more students of modest means—but big dreams—who are trying to use community college as a stepping stone to a better life.

A version of this article was also published on Education Post (educationpost.org) entitled “Too Many Students Drop Out of Community Colleges. Here’s How We Fix It.” on January 19, 2018.

Tinkerbell Explains It All

I have a vague memory of being taken to a performance of Peter Pan when I was a child. Like almost everyone of a certain age, what sticks out the most is the scene where Tinkerbell is apparently dying, and we were exhorted to clap our hands to a near-insane pitch of enthusiasm until, accompanied by our childish squeals of delight, “Tink” revived—thanks to the sheer power of our collective belief.

The “Tinkerbell Effect” refers to the peculiar phenomenon of something seeming to exist only because we desperately wish to believe it is so—and I wonder whether this explains much about the country we live in today. We have chosen to believe in a host of lies and half-truths peddled by our financial, political, educational, and cultural elites—no matter how illogical and inexplicable they might be—and these falsehoods have survived because of our refusals to acknowledge any evidence they might not be true.

Therefore, we ignore increasingly urgent warnings regarding the dangers of our inflated stock markets and housing prices, educationally-deficient schools and colleges, overextended military, and staggering public debts. If we just clap our hands hard enough, we will be safe from any consequences of our greed, stupidity, hubris, and profligacy. Concerns that any—or all—of these problems are imperiling our nation’s future are regularly debunked by elected leaders and well-paid experts who soothingly assure us that all is well.

And we clap our hands like trained seals, content to believe the unbelievable. Stock market and housing bubbles are just fine. Diplomas based on content-free coursework guarantee our children are academically prepared to pursue their dreams. Endless wars have no effect on our military readiness. Functionally bankrupt governments will still be able to take care of our many needs and wants.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap

It is, of course, basic human nature to ignore bad news and actively distract ourselves with the trivial and sensational, so it makes perfect sense that vote-seeking politicians and smiling lobbyists can easily convince us the party will never end. Nonetheless, we need to peek up from our digital devices in order to discern the difference between what is truth and what is deception.

We will, unfortunately, need to find a way to solve our problems despite our empty pockets—and the refusal of so many to accept this fact. It is now (nearly) impossible to ignore our dire public sector fiscal problems, which have been compounded by several decades of resolutely refusing to live within our means. The expansive promises of politicians who claim to be able to protect us from all harm through the magic of ever-expanding government programs has become a self-destructive exercise in spending that has been sustained only by increasingly suspect guarantees security is just one more big tax increase away.

However, if you find any of these observations disturbing, upsetting, insulting, or contrary to your most cherished beliefs, that’s your prerogative. If you keep clapping, I’m certain everything will turn out just fine—somehow.

Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap.