I’ve long suspected that somewhere in the White House basement an obscure office exists who is responsible for inventing high-sounding programs whose purpose is to allow President Obama to maximize Air Force One travel to give upbeat speeches to adoring audiences. That these alluring initiatives often come to naught, even make a bad situation worse, is irrelevant; their real purpose is therapeutic political theater thereby allowing the President to do what he really enjoys—playing Santa Claus.
My suspicions that this office actually exists were recently confirmed when the President announced his latest fix for America’s (supposed) lagging economic competitiveness —the American College Promise. In a nutshell, Washington will commit \$60 billion over 10 years with the states kicking in another \$20 billion to make two years of community college virtually free. Students would on average save \$3,800 per year in tuition plus access to \$1000 in Pell Grants and families would receive \$2,500 from the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The President called on “everyone to do their part”: community colleges to strengthen their programs and increase graduation rates, while students must maintain good grades (a 2.5 or “C+” in today’s world of grade inflation). In principle, some 9 million youngsters can participate.
The President predictably paints an alluring, optimistic picture. He talks about “hard working” and “responsible students” just waiting to enter the middle class. Community colleges are also viewed as stepping stones to four-year institutions. Programs will be “high quality” which seems to mean academically oriented insofar as they will be given full credit by public four-year colleges (i.e., no underwater basket weaving). Meanwhile, those colleges enrolling community graduates must implement “evidence-based institutional reforms to improve student outcomes” and, just to make sure that the newly minted wunderkinder continue their march into the middle class, the welcoming schools will waive tuition, subsidize books and transportation costs, offer additional academic advising and adjust class schedules (no mention of who will fund these benefits).
Obama’s vision naturally entails yet more government bureaucracy. There would be an American Technical Training Fund to align community college education with the needs of employers thanks to \$2 billion in grants. Existing agencies will also have to hire workers to hand out additional Pell grants, administer the pay-as-you-earn learn programs, while overseeing newly created tax credits. Then there’s the newly established “First in the World Grants” program that also expands educational opportunities, the college rating program that helps students become savvy school shoppers, and let’s not forget the Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training program that has benefited 1,000 institutions to the tune of \$2 billion in federal funding. And just to make sure that no stone goes unturned, schools can turn to the recently created Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness designed to improve English and mathematical education. Finally, the Call to Action on College Opportunity will coordinates the efforts of college presidents and non-profit foundations “… to build seamless transitions among institutions, develop clear educational and career pathways, implement strategies to increase student completion of STEM programs, and establish more accurate measures of student progress and success.”
Sky-is-falling rhetoric aside (“…Americans need more knowledge and skills to meet the demands of a growing global economy without having to take on decades of debt before they even embark on their career”) the America’s College Promise (ACP) program is a terrible idea. In fact, it is a solution without a problem since lower-income students already receive huge discounts on community college tuition with the poorest paying zero. Middle class kids also pay little and even full list price is quite affordable. More generally, Obama’s proposal is just mindless credential mania and if the degree were as valuable as claimed, why are 44% of recent college graduates employed in jobs not requiring their college degrees? But, that said, it deserves closer scrutiny– perhaps a better word is autopsy–for it exposes the deep pathologies that afflict the Obama administration’s efforts at “help.”
Most clearly, do President Obama and his advisors honestly believe that the ACP program has any realistic chance of surviving the GOP dominated Congress? To my mind, the ACP looks like a make-work project of under-employed White House policy wonks. This \$60 billion (plus \$20 billion from the states) is surely DOA considering today’s concern with deficit spending. Republicans certainly recognize that the ACP only guarantees more government jobs for a very iffy educational gain (more about this below).
Moreover, even if Uncle Sam could afford the venture, ACP reeks of yet even more (and increasingly unwelcome) Washington intrusion into state and local policy-making. Try to imagine the paperwork generated when the Department of Education tries to certify “quality courses” in some 1167 community colleges? This is especially arduous since left unsaid is which specific four-year public colleges will constitute the standard? Would this be the University of California, Berkeley or instead some state diploma mill? Imagine a Washington mid-level administrator lacking professional credentials navigating this task across multiple academic fields? Given the daily number of certification decisions, this requirement invites capriciousness.
The demand that community colleges only offer “quality courses” is certainly deceptive when funding is linked to graduation rates. As any experienced professor will tell you, upping academic standards usually cuts graduation rates and so how can a college achieve these contradictory aims? Ironically, insisting on a “quality” requirement undermines the community college’s core mission—a school where even academic strugglers (often euphemistically called “non-traditional students”) can gain something of educational value albeit in non-academic fields.
The upshot of this focus on “quality” courses may well push students into dead end jobs in the name of improving workforce quality. Imagine a youngster who wants to be a top-flight aviation mechanic, a much needed, well-paying skill. But, since taking courses in that subject, no matter how vocationally worthwhile, are not transferrable to four-year colleges, a financially strapped student may well choose to enroll in Gender Studies 101 that would likely guarantee ACP funding since nearly all four-year colleges offer this nonsense. In effect, the incentive structure will convert future mechanics, welders, and computer geeks into liberal arts graduates brewing coffee at Starbucks.
In addition, Obama’s plan falsely assumes that cost plays a decisive role in the decision to attend college: cut costs and watch enrollments soar. Not exactly–if cost were decisive, what explains all the drop-outs from totally free high schools? In 2014/15 the average in-state tuition of a public two year college was \$3,347. Compared to nearly all other college alternatives, this is hardly financially crushing and, we noted above, is usually far less given plentiful scholarships and the option of stretching out attendance over 3 or 4 years.
Moreover, this Obama model assumes a fixed relationship between cost and student quality so youngsters now enticed to attend a cheaper community college are cognitively indistinguishable from those paying \$3,347. (And keep in mind that those already enrolled are hardly the brightest given an average 20% graduation rate). More plausible is that the recently arrived pay-nothing students are less desirous of an education (and probably dumber) than those who pay hard cash. Going one step further, the influx of no-pay students may well degrade the college’s already diluted academic quality, so the community college’s economic contribution will inevitably decline. This is a process identical to undermining the academic excellence of a high school by forcing it to retain dummies and, by hook or crook, awarding them diplomas. Better to stress quality over quantity but that means less money to educators, a key Democratic constituency.
The explanation that people skip college since they can ill-afford it afford it represents a recipe for financial prolificacy; better explanations exist, including low academic ability. Consider a recent NY Times editorial that argued that since tuition is only (allegedly) one-fifth of college’s real cost, Washington might also want to pay for non-tuition costs, namely housing, books, and transportation. So, in dollar terms, Uncle Sam must now spend \$240 billion in handouts, not a mere \$60 billion to make the US internationally competitive. Actually, this \$240 billion is on the low side since the editorial also suggests that work often impedes attending college so perhaps employment would be replaced by a dole. Hard to imagine a more devious plan for enticing yet more Americans into government dependency but then again, this is the NY Times speaking .
Now for the fatal flaw in America’s College Promise. Community colleges (and colleges in general) and the private sector operate according to vastly different incentives. Outside of a few elite institutions, colleges have little (if any) inducement to turn out a handful of high-quality products while flunking the rest. As in the old Soviet Union, millions of ugly, ill-fitting left shoes are fine if this fills the quota. By contrast, a private firm that embraced quantity over quality über alles would go bankrupt.
Non-academics seldom understand how easy it is to manufacture the academic equivalent of shoddy left shoes. Community colleges, given their mission, typically admit all applicants with the upshot that many initial courses are remedial and thus ineligible for ACP funding. But, the line between remedial and a “gut” regular course eligible for ACP funding with a better sounding title can be fuzzy, and a little suggestion to the part-timers who typically teach these disguised remedial courses usually suffices. Invisibly, bone-head English is re-classified as a genuine college course. How about allowing Hispanic students to amass “college credits” by taking Spanish 101?
Schools can also effortlessly mislabel offerings so that “The Economics of Consumer Behavior” becomes nothing more than field trips to nearby malls with store managers giving guest lectures. Even if the material is intellectually demanding, the under-the-gun instructors can always ignore cheating and plagiarism. Meanwhile, astute college administrators will permit failing students to painlessly drop the course before the “F” hits the transcript. Students may also be allowed to re-take the course multiple times until attaining the necessary “C.” All in all, a community college administrator unable to make the ACP numbers despite nearly brain dead enrollees should be fired for gross incompetence.
But far worse is how many colleges will encourage terrible work habits under the guise of promoting the revenue-generating ACP. After all, why crack the whip when even the most insouciant warm body pays the bills? Just ask any of today’s professors about student sloth: skipping class without penalty, late papers, requesting a second or third chance to re-take an exam, text-messaging during lectures, requesting special treatment due to some vague privacy-protected disability and similar behavior have become commonplace without any stigma. I know of a young lady who requested a dispensation from doing any math for her finance degree since she had a phobia regarding numbers. One of my graduate students whose assignments were habitually late escaped punishment thanks to a claimed (invisible) disability that was a carefully guarded secret.
Here’s the bottom line: what might be acceptable in obtaining a college diploma is generally toxic in the private sector. Imagine workers who haphazardly skipped work just as they once cut classes sans any consequences? Or felt that deadlines were always negotiable and it was okay to hand in Wikipedia copied material as original research? It is no accident, at least in my experience, that businesses often prefer fire-in-the-belly immigrants with limited “book knowledge” versus slackers from second or third tier schools.
It would be easy to dismiss the America’s College Promise as yet one more ill-advised Obama scheme. It is certainly that, but more is involved. Recall an earlier essay about Obama’s proposal to boost the academic accomplishments of academic bottom dwellers by leveling resources —if the rich kids enjoyed fancy science labs, the barely literate must have them, too. Or, if two science labs were unaffordable, nobody would get one so as to be “fair.” I pointed out that this policy hinted at worrisome cognitive deficiencies not just shoddy bill drafting.
The ACP is only one of many such Obama examples. Does anybody remember Obama’s 2014 quixotic My Brother’s Keeper Program? How about the President’s recent call that every federal worker receive six weeks of paid maternity leave (including parents adopting children). There’s a pattern here and to repeat, the scariest feature of this ineptitude not the wasted resources; it is the uncomfortable realization that we are being governed by policy-makers who resemble not too bright adolescents participating in model UN-like high school exercises. I can see such naive 13-year olds saying, “more education cures everything, so let’s make it free, and then enroll everybody in college and then pay colleges only if all students take tough courses and everybody graduates.”
What may be the most frightening is how the President and his staff display a mentality typically associated with primitive people—a belief that a fancy piece of paper (a diploma) is a talisman (or amulet) that bestows magical powers on the owner. Why else the emphasis on easily manipulated graduation rates versus a hard-nosed professional certification tests such as the CPA or bar exam? Why permit the schools themselves to confirm “proven outcomes”? The answer is obvious—learning is hard, distributing magical pieces of paper certifying “education” is easy. And that millions will financially benefit from all these newly printed pieces of paper only adds to the ACP’s allure. Again, something very wrong is going on here, far worse than the usual run of the mill inept policy-making.