I want to preface this blog post by saying that I have not, not at all, jumped on the “free community college” bandwagon. There are a lot of questions I would have before I’d support such a thing, and this despite the fact that my two oldest daughters are currently attending a community college for their first two years of education. I’d want to know who would qualify, how it would be paid for, and how much state and local control would remain. It would be a bad idea to federalize education at the community college level, for instance, and there are other bureaucratic pitfalls that would have to be avoided.
Having said all of that, I have to react to this incredibly horrible article a point at a time because it just cries out for that kind of treatment:
1. Stealing? Really? The author, Joy Pullmann, claims that “free” community college would be “stealing” from hard working taxpayers (with the implication that the money would go to the slackers and leeches who haven’t managed to earn their own way). If that’s the case, though, then the government is also “stealing” from me when they collect my property taxes and other taxes, which go to fund local public schools, because my kids have never gone to the public schools. Why should I pay for other people’s kids to go to school? Simple: we, as a nation, tend to think it’s a good idea to have an educated population.
2. In her second point Pullmann says that no one owes anybody a college education. This is, technically, true. And nobody owes anybody public roads, public libraries, public parks, etc., either, but we sort of think these are nice things to have and nobody but the most extreme libertarians seem to think otherwise. If an educated populace is a benefit to society, why shouldn’t society create a pathway for those students for whom even a community college education is an otherwise impossible goal? The hypothetical eighteen-year-old Pullman discusses, the one who has been sponging off of his parents and grandparents for the last 18 years, is not the one who needs help with community college--it’s the kids who have grown up with single parents or in foster homes or in dire poverty, the ones working while taking classes and hoping to be able to keep paying for it all. Pullmann may not know any kids like that, but my daughters have met some of them, and there are probably some at her local community college if she would go and talk to them.
3. The “entitlements” buzzword: why is it that so many people can make anything sound crappy and expensive (to use Pullmann’s terms) by calling it an entitlement? I think she makes a big mistake by lumping the G.I. Bill in with her other list of complaints, though: the G.I. Bill has helped a lot of veterans go to college (and I say this as a wife of a veteran who served, most unfortunately, during a time when the G.I. Bill was not in force and who had to figure out how to pay for his own education after having served overseas for four years first). If a “Community College Bill” had the same effect as the G.I. Bill on our nation, it would likely boost productivity and income and help more people get ahead--and what’s wrong with that?
4. Pullman cites the low graduation rate of community college grads. Her thinking seems to be that these kids are wasting their time in college and should just give up. That may be true for a handful of them, but I think she’s missing a key point: lots of kids who don’t finish community college don’t manage to finish precisely because they can’t afford to pay for it. But we’ll revisit that point later.
5. This one’s a head-scratcher: Pullmann says that in the good old days an eighth-grade graduation was better than today’s community college degree. I might tend to agree a bit, so long as we leave computer classes and technology courses out of the equation, but the real question is: so what? Educational standards have slipped across the board. You don’t have to be fluent in Hebrew, Latin and Greek to go to Harvard or Yale anymore, either. Nostalgia for the past isn’t going to help actual college students in the year 2015.
6. Pullmann thinks we shouldn’t “trap” kids in school longer. Oh, right. Because so many kids are graduating from high school and stepping straight into lucrative careers these days. Somehow I doubt Pullmann views the kids going to Ivy League schools and pursuing masters’ degrees or doctorates as being “trapped” in school. But, hey, those kids have earned the right to be in those schools by virtue of...trust funds, or something.
7. This one made me laugh out loud. Everybody can afford community college already? Everybody? Really? I know we’ve been able to help our girls with the local community college tuition, but it helps that they live here at home and that they’ve earned scholarships and found campus jobs and so forth. The part that really made me chuckle was this quote: “A 40-hour, minimum-wage job over 12 weeks of summer will earn a tax-free $3,480 (tax-free because no one earning this little pays taxes).” Leaving aside her ignorance about the fact that taxes including Social Security will, indeed, be confiscated from that income, there is the total breathtaking ignorance about how easy or possible it is for a college student to get a summer job where he or she will get anywhere near 40 hours a week! And then there’s her equally blithe assumption that students will be able to work fifteen hours a week or so while taking classes--has she never heard of the scourge called “on-demand scheduling” that forces college students to skip classes in order to take hours the boss demands at the last minute? It’s not like a college student working off-campus can go in and say, “Here are the hours I can’t ever work because I’m in classes then.” In this day and age, the hiring manager will just shrug and say, “I can find plenty of people who are available 24/7--why should I bother hiring you?” and show them the door. My girls have known kids who have had to choose between staying in school and keeping a job. The job usually wins.
8. No one would be happier than I would be if the “college bubble” really were about to burst. But with companies still demanding huge increases in the number of H1-B visas because they allegedly can’t find qualified Americans to do technical work, I wouldn’t advise any young students to place their career eggs in this “college bubble about to burst” basket. I am cynical enough to believe that some high-tech companies may be trying to convince American students that “credentialing” is all that matters, so they can turn around and go to Congress and say (with their hands out) “Why, look! The number of Americans graduating in tech fields has dropped yet again!” at which point the next wave of cheap third-world programmers can come in on visa waves and take the jobs Americans “can’t” do--because the Americans believed the hype about credentialing and never got a computer degree.
9. Pullmann claims that the next wave of job growth will happen in fields that don’t need college degrees. If you follow the links in her piece, you will see these new hot jobs listed: janitor, personal care aide, various low-level health care workers, retail sales jobs. These are not careers that will support a family--these are jobs that will continue to pay rock-bottom salaries to people who--like many of the workers at big-box stores--have to apply for welfare and Medicaid just to make ends meet. How does it help the economy to create a new serf class instead of helping young people have a better future?
10. Last, but not least: Pullmann is right that we’re hugely in debt, as a nation. Perhaps we could decrease that debt significantly by ending corporate welfare and investing in our children’s futures instead. I’d be willing to listen to some ideas along those lines.
It may yet end up that fully funding the first two years of college education for those students with good grades who choose to attend community colleges will be an unworkable idea. But I am amazed at the “let them eat cake!” attitudes displayed by Pullmann in her piece. Anybody who thinks that community college is something all young Americans can easily afford and that the poor already get for free (as she says) has probably never talked to students at a local community college.
And when our country has made a college degree a requirement for even entry-level jobs, it is rather cruel to prefer the status quo, which makes college all but mandatory for those who want a better life than endless minimum wage jobs without benefits, yet all but impossible for those students whose parents are among the working poor. After all, if these seven countries can manage to charge little or nothing for college, why is it that in America college is still often seen as a privilege for the rich rather than a necessity for the many?